Atlas Obscura - Latest Articles and Places
Trading One Bad Map for Another?
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

Earlier this month, the social studies classrooms of Boston Public Schools underwent a slight but significant change in decor. Down came the Mercator Projection—a common choice of world maps for schools—which distorts the size of each land mass but keeps continental shapes intact. Up went a different map, the Peters, which stretches out the world in order to give each continent a proportionally accurate amount of room. On the Peters, Canada—so huge on the Mercator—shrinks to its proper size, while Africa, which the Mercator shows shrunk and jammed beneath a too-large Europe, stretches out.

Boston educators are celebrating the choice. "It was amazingly interesting to see [the students] questioning what they thought they knew," social studies director Natacha Scott told NPR after the Peters was introduced. And news articles about the swap tell a tidy story, in which a more enlightened representation of the world rightfully replaces an outmoded one.

But many map historians are privately disheartened—not by the switch itself, but by the resuscitation of the Mercator-Peters rivalry, a conflict that has bedeviled public-facing cartography for decades, and which they see as a manufactured, false choice.


"News of Boston public schools' decision to go with the Peters projection has gone viral over the past week, and my teeth have not stopped itching," Jonathan Crowe writes on his blog, The Map Room. "It is incredibly short-sighted and narrow-minded to say it should be one or the other," says Mark Monmonier, author of Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection. Even Ronald Grim, curator of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, had concerns: "In my mind, both the Mercator and the Peters are controversial projections," he says in a phone interview. "But we were not asked to be part of the decision."

Choosing between map projections is a necessarily difficult task. The Earth is resolutely three-dimensional, and any attempts to smooth it out are going to add a certain amount of warping. It's a balancing act: the more accurate you make the continents' relative area, the more you have to distort their shapes, and vice versa. The art of cartography lies in choosing to privilege one or another of these accuracies—or finding a sweet spot between them that serves your particular purpose.

That said, no one is too sad to see the Mercator go. It's over 400 years old, and its flaws are legion. The Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, who came up with the projection, was trying to enable sailors to plot a smooth, straight course across the ocean. To accomplish this, he had to sacrifice accuracy in other areas, namely, the relative sizes of the continents. In the Mercator Projection, land masses near the equator—such as Africa and South America—are squished, while those near the poles, like Alaska and Northern Europe, are stretched out. Meanwhile, Antarctica is rendered so large that map publishers often don't bother to include all of it. In the process, they generally recenter the world vertically on Europe, rather than the equator.


In the past, white supremacists have celebrated these geometric incidentals. "[The Mercator] has been used by some pro-Western, pro-Imperial types in the 19th and 20th centuries to map the world, as Europe and North America look much bigger than they are vis-a-vis the more tropical areas they exploited," writes Matthew Edney, a professor of cartographic history at the University of Southern Maine, in an email. Others argue that by enabling exploration in the first place, the Mercator is an inherently colonialist map. And in the present day, its ubiquity contributes to a virulent strain of racially inflected geographic ignorancefor instance, it makes Africa appear to be the same size as Greenland, when it's really about fourteen times bigger.

It's this last issue that Boston Public Schools, which serves a student population that is 74 percent black, is responding to. “We were primarily concerned with the notion of decolonizing our curriculum,” says Hayden Frederick-Clarke, Director of Cultural Proficiency for the school district, and the person who decided to make the switch. Schools across the country are working to combat the racism that often persists in older textbooks and other classroom materials. To Frederick-Clarke, swapping the Mercator for the Peters was an opportunity to address this imbalance—a first step in what, over the next three years, will become a much larger lift. "It's a systems test, as well as a symbolic representation of what we'd like to do to our curricula writ large," he says.


To other experts, though, trading the Mercator for the Peters isn't a step up. Instead, they say, it swaps geographic distortion for a kind of historical ignorance. When the historian Arno Peters came up with his projection, in the 1970s, he was unwittingly copying a much older map, the Gall Projection, which was invented by a Scottish minister in the 1860s. (The Peters projection is also known as the the Gall-Peters, for this reason.) On its own, it was never particularly popular. "Arthur Robinson famously said that it looks like long underwear hung out on a clothesline," says Monmonier. "Most cartographers were not big fans of it."

Peters' main success, then, was in rebranding. In order to push for his map's adoption, he constructed a careful case, based primarily on comparing it to the Mercator. The Mercator "over-values the white man and distorts the picture of the world to the advantage of the colonial masters of the time," Peters wrote. Only his own equal-area map, he said, avoided these problems while still preserving accuracy and clarity.

The gambit worked. Oxfam, UNICEF, and UNESCO all eventually began using and distributing Peters' map. The media, excited by the idea of an academic map battle, eagerly covered the rivalry. Even the television show The West Wing talked it up, via an imaginary association called Cartographers for Social Equality.

Actual cartographers, though, remained—and remain—unimpressed. "Arno Peters concocted a veritable farrago of lies to sell his map," writes Edney. "He came up with a number of properties so that he could say, 'only two maps meet all properties properly, Mercator's projection and mine—and Mercator's suffers from all these political problems, so use mine!' All of his properties are complete B.S."

Peters's contemporaries called him "absurd" and "cartographically naïve," and his map "pretentious and misleading… nonsense."

"I'm surprised at the Boston school board and committee," says Monmonier. "I think they were sold a bill of goods."

Even without this backstory, Edney, Monmonier and others say there are plenty of better equal-area maps than the Peters. Edney recommends the Ecker IV projection, which preserves the continents' proportionality and positions without sacrificing too much of their shape. Monmonier thinks anyone concerned with geographic fairness should be using demographic base maps, in which each country's size is based on its population. Grim thinks the more, the merrier: "If they asked me, what I would advocate is that they have many maps, or several at least," he says. He is working on an editorial to this effect, which he hopes to publish sometime soon.

Frederick-Clarke—who says he considered a number of projections before settling on the Peters—is sticking by his choice. "It's a fact that the Peters map is the map that presents the size of the countries in the most accurate form," he says. If people are surprised at what that looks like, all the better.

Drigung Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

The monastery overlooks the Shorong valley.

Tibetan monasteries with their peaceful and silent atmosphere seem like unlikely candidates for violence and politics. But the Drigung Thil monastery near Lhasa suffered great destruction early in its history before being rebuilt to become the structure seen today.

The fortress-like monastery was founded by Kyowa Jigten Sumgon in the late 12th century, and his Drigung Kagyu school of teachings soon acquired a huge following. With its increasing popularity and political power, there also began a rivalry with another influential sect, the Sakyas. The Sakyas led a march on the monastery in 1290 and destroyed it. Though its political clout declined, it was rebuilt and remains an important spiritual center, especially known for its meditation techniques. 

During the Cultural Revolution, the monastery suffered another series of attacks, where a lot of its statues and manuscripts were looted, and buildings damaged. The current site overlooks the Shorong valley and contains traditionally decorated temples, prayer halls, and residences for around 250 monks.

The monastery is also well-known for its sky burial site, situated at a height of 14,975 feet on the mountaintop. The death ceremonies are performed by the monks every afternoon, and the following morning the bodies are carried to the site, with is surrounded by small stupas and temples. Himalayan vultures are invited to feed on the flesh and anything that remains is burnt and offered to the sky in another ritual. It is one of the last remaining places in the world where the traditional excarnation ritual is practiced.

Just an Unsettlingly Large Chicken Egg
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

Dennis Goslow keeps hens in Echo Bay, Ontario, near the Canadian-American border and the city of Sault Ste. Marie. Last week, according to CBC News, he made a surprising discovery: the biggest egg he's ever collected from one of his hens, weighing in at nearly half a pound. 

Goslow hasn't cracked the egg open yet, but he wonders if the giant egg is in fact an egg within an egg, which result from a failed egg-laying, after which a second egg forms around the first. 

Whatever the case, we can agree that Goslow's egg is still, by the rules of eggs, an egg, even if it is not the biggest chicken egg ever found. Guinness World Records says that one was laid in 1956 in New Jersey, and weighed just over a pound. 

Goslow said he doesn't know which of his hens laid it, but he thinks of said hen with a mixture of pity and awe. "You can imagine, the poor thing coming out," Goslow told the CBC. "It looks like an egg, but it's a little rough."

But he has at least one suspect. 

"I was looking for the one that didn't have any butt," he said. "When I was in there it seemed like one chicken was all light and happy."

The Strange Way Mosquitoes Fly
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

Mosquitoes are one of nature’s most annoying creations, and also one that we are still learning about. In fact, we weren't even actually sure quite how they get off the ground until just this week, when a newly-released paper revealed tests showing that have shed some light on their bizarre wing movement.

Given the size and shape of a mosquito, they shouldn’t really be able to fly the way they do. A paper published Wednesday in Nature revealed that instead of flapping their wings the same way a similarly-sized insect like a bumblebee might, mosquitoes twist their wings while they flap, creating a mini-vortex to keep them in the air.

In addition, the arcs their wings trace is also surprisingly small, covering just 44 degrees in each flap (an article on Quartz compares this to the 180 degrees of a butterfly’s flap). Because of this, mosquitoes have to move their wings incredibly fast to achieve lift. To quote the SCIENCE from the Nature paper, “their long, slender wings flap at remarkably high frequencies for their size (>800 Hz) and with lower stroke amplitudes than any other insect group.” It’s also this speed that gives them their telltale buzzing sound.

This discovery has an impact on the study of aerodynamics and insect biology, but unfortunately does nothing to make mosquitoes more tolerable.

Original Stash Tribute Plaque in Estacada, Oregon
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

Dave Ulmer, who placed the first Geocache, and the tribute plaque.

On May 3, 2000, a man named Dave Ulmer hiked out into the Oregon woods with a black bucket full of random objects, stashed it on the ground, marked its position with his Global Positioning System device, and dared fellow GPS users to find it. Thus, geocaching was born.

The inspiration had come the day before, when then-president Bill Clinton directed the discontinuation of Selective Availability, a GPS feature that had added intentional errors to public navigation signals to hinder their accuracy for security reasons. Ulmer wanted to test GPS's new accuracy.

He placed two CD-ROMs, a book by Ross Perot, a VHS of the movie George of the Jungle, four dollars cash, a slingshot handle, a cassette tape recorder, some topographic software, and a can of black-eyed beans in a bucket, left it in the woods, and sent it’s coordinates (N 45° 17.460 W 122° 24.800) to sci.geo.satellite-nav. There was also a logbook with instructions: “The Rule Is: Take Something Leave Something.”

By May 6th, just a few days later, Mike Teague and one other GPS user had found the bucket. Teague was the only one of the two to log his discovery. He also took the four dollars and left a cassette tape, a pen, and a few cigarettes. Soon, others were finding Ulmer’s stash and hiding their own. Teague took to documenting the coordinates people were hiding things at and connecting with those people, and the “GPS Stash Hunt” mailing list was created.

The name "geocache" came about because users thought the word “stash” might give people the wrong impression about the activity. “Geocache” was assembled from the word “geo,” from the Greek for Earth, and “cache,” an 18th century word for a temporary hiding place, which had also, more recently, come to be used in reference to computer memory.

In 2003, a geocacher who goes by the name Team 360 raised money for a plaque to commemorate the location of that first cache, and installed it in the company of Ulmer and a few other geocachers. A new cache and a large logbook were placed near it. The original bucket had been damaged by a lawnmower, but the original can of beans was unearthed during the installation. It was also in bad shape, but was fixed up and preserved, and now it travels around with Team 360, and geocachers line up and cheer for it.

Geocachers flock reverently to the site of the first stash, some even going so far as to kiss the plaque for luck when they get there. It is among the most visited caches on record.

William Donaghy Memorial in Devon, England
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

William Donaghy's memorial inscription.

On February 21, 1914, two farmers were hunting rabbits in a remote part of Dartmoor National Park when they came across a corpse lain face down atop a waterproof sheet next to a boulder.

The man was young and was wearing inadequate clothing for the wild, desolate moors. The weather had been frosty, with freezing rain and strong winds. He was wearing a light jacket and overcoat, as well as a loosened rubber collar, blue spotted tie, and a Swiss watch. Amongst his possessions were a Dartmoor guide book, £20 in gold coins (roughly £2000 in today's money), and a cloakroom ticket dated Feb 4th from an Exeter railway station. 

When the cloakroom ticket was redeemed by the police, a bag was recovered deposited under the name "Jones." Inside the bag was a revolver along with 19 rounds of ammunition, a knife, a watch and chain, and a mourning ring inscribed 1817.

The body was identified as 33-year-old William Donaghy, who had gone missing from his home in Liverpool the previous autumn. Though he had been diagnosed with "morbid melancholy," his relatives and coworkers claimed they never saw any signs of desperation in him. On the 21st of November, William bade his sisters good morning before heading to the Warrington Technical School where he taught science. He was present for his morning classes, but never appeared for his afternoon lessons. The same day James Donaghy, William's brother, received a brief note that read, "I am going away. Please settle my affairs." Donaghy was never seen again until his body was found on Dartmoor.

The question of why William disappeared and what he was doing on Dartmoor has never been answered. An autopsy revealed no trace of poison or foul play, and it is believed that William died of hypothermia. However, why he left Liverpool with little warning and what he did in the months he was missing remains a mystery. If he intended to take his own life, why would he leave the revolver and knife at the Exeter station? What led him to the boulder at Dartmoor, roughly two miles from any kind of shelter?

Shortly after Donaghy's funeral in Liverpool, the boulder beside which his body was found was engraved: "IN MEMORY OF — WILLIAM DONAGHY — OF LIVERPOOL — WHO DIED BESIDE THIS STONE FEBRUARY 1914." There is no record of who ordered the inscription.

To add to the mystery, 20 years after Donaghy's death another Warrington teacher was discovered dead on a marsh not far from where William was found. He was wearing the same spotted tie and Swiss watch. 

Origami Intersections in Santa Monica, California
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

The pattern at 4th Street and Santa Monica Blvd

While they will never be folded into the beautiful origami sculptures the patterns suggest, the crease patterns found at four intersections in Santa Monica, California, offer something very unusual: They are so large, they may be the only origami patterns to be visible from space.

These giant origami crease patterns are the work of Robert Lang, an American mathematician, physicist, and one of the most well-regarded masters of origami in the world. In 1999, Lang was commissioned to create works of public art for the City of Santa Monica, and, working with Brailsford Studio, designed bronze origami sculptures based on animals one might find in the surrounding area: a tree frog, a sea urchin, a dragonfly, and a garibaldi. The sculptures were affixed to drinking fountains at four intersections, where 2nd Street and 4th Street cross Broadway and Santa Monica Boulevard.

In the middle of these intersections, giant representations of the crease patterns for each animal were installed. Colored concrete was poured in large squares and the patterns were carved into it and filled with contrasting grout to help them stand out. The light-colored concrete squares are visible in the middle of the intersections on Google Earth, and Lang believes that with a good enough camera the crease patterns in the intersections may be visible from space as well.

About a year after they were completed, the sea urchin and garibaldi fountain sculptures were replaced with a sea turtle and a flying fish, also designed by Lang, because the original sculptures featured sharp points right near where people put their faces to take a drink of water. The crease patterns in the intersections remained the same. 

Why Japan's Rail Workers Can't Stop Pointing at Things
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

It is hard to miss when taking the train in Tokyo. White-gloved employees in crisp uniforms pointing smartly down the platform and calling out—seemingly to no one—as trains glide in and out of the station. Onboard is much the same, with drivers and conductors performing almost ritual-like movements as they tend to an array of dials, buttons and screens

Japan’s rail system has a well-deserved reputation for being among the very best in the world. An extensive network of tracks moving an estimated 12 billion passengers each year with an on-time performance measured in the seconds makes Japanese rail a precise, highly reliable transportation marvel.

Train conductors, drivers and station staff play an important role in the safe and efficient operation of the lines; a key aspect of which is the variety of physical gestures and vocal calls that they perform while undertaking their duties. While these might strike visitors as silly, the movements and shouts are a Japanese-innovated industrial safety method known as pointing-and-calling; a system that reduces workplace errors by up to 85 percent.


Known in Japanese as shisa kanko, pointing-and-calling works on the principle of associating one’s tasks with physical movements and vocalizations to prevent errors by “raising the consciousness levels of workers”—according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Japan. Rather than rely on a worker’s eyes or habit alone, each step in a given task is reinforced physically and audibly to ensure the step is both complete and accurate.

In the rail context, when train drivers wish to perform a required speed check, they do not simply glance at a display. Rather, the speedometer will be physically pointed at, with a call of “speed check, 80”—confirming the action taking place, and audibly confirming the correct speed. For station staff who ensure the platform-side tracks are free of debris or fallen passengers, a visual scan alone is not sufficient. Instead, the attendant will point down the track and sweep their arm along the length of the platform—eyes following the hand—before declaring all clear. The process repeats as the train departs, ensuring no bags—or passengers—are caught hanging from the train’s closed doors.

It is such an integral part of Japanese transportation that direction boards at the Kyoto Rail Museum even feature characters in the classic point-and-call stance.

The system is in place across a number of industries in Japan. Originally developed by the now-defunct Kobe Railroad Administration Bureau in the late Meiji Period (the early 20th century), pointing-and-calling is known to reduce workplace errors by up to 85 percent, according to one 1996 study. While some workers point-and-call more enthusiastically than others, even those who are more blasé benefit from the increased awareness that comes from physically reinforcing each task.

For such a simple but effective method of improving workers’ error rate, the system continues to find itself largely confined to Japan. Indeed, it is one of the many quirks of the Japanese workplace that fall flat with Western workers. In the case of pointing-and-calling, Japanese commentators have theorized that Western employees feel “silly” performing the requisite gestures and calls.


A notable exception is New York City’s MTA subway system, whose conductors have used a modified point-only system since 1996 after then Chief Transportation Officer Nathaniel Ford was fascinated by the point-and-call system during a business trip to Japan. In the MTA’s case, conductors point to a fixed black-and-white “zebra board” to confirm a stopped train is correctly located along the platform.

According to MTA spokeswoman Amanda Kwan, conductors were quick to adapt to the new system, and within two years of implementation, incidents of incorrectly berthed subways fell 57 percent.

Japanese workers are also not immune to feeling self-conscious when it comes to pointing-and-calling, although with training it soon becomes an accepted part of the job. A spokesperson for Tokyo Metro noted in a statement that new employees “ recognize pointing-and-calling as necessary for safe rail operations, and therefore do not feel embarrassment."

Kobe Luminarie in Chūō-ku, Japan
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

The annual Kobe Luminarie festival.

Every December, a light festival is held in Kobe, Japan, to commemorate the 6,000 lives lost in 1995 to the Great Hanshin Earthquake, one of Japan’s deadliest earthquakes, the damage from which left many survivors in darkness without electricity, gas, and water.

For these survivors, the light festival was a vessel to brighten their spirits and raise money for aid. It was intended to only run for one year, but proved so popular the lights have adorned downtown Kobe every year since, illuminating the area with more than 200,000 hand-painted tiny bulbs.

The lights were donated by the Italian government and the origin of the event’s name is the Italian word for illuminations using miniature bulbs, "luminarie." The installation was produced by Italian artistic director Valerio Festi and Kobe native Hirokazu Imaoka. Each year's display uses thousands of painted lightbulbs powered by biomass for minimal environmental impact.

After the earthquake, Kobe had challenges bringing tourists back into the region, and the reoccurrence of the festival also helped to combat this problem. An estimated 4 million people come to Kobe each winter to witness the spectacular display. The city roads are closed off to any traffic during the festival, allowing visitors to roam the streets freely.

The festival has no entry fee but is able to raise millions from donations and merchandise sales, which is given to the victims of the great earthquake. 

The Strange Business of Suction Cups
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

It was the cup that comical YouTube unboxing videos were made for.

Last year, the Mighty Mug, a drink receptacle that’s designed to not fall down under normal circumstances, gained a lot of attention from video makers the world over because of its one weird trick.

Unboxer extraordinaire Lamarr Wilson, for example, was so freaked out by this cup that he took a baseball bat to it. (That did the trick, by the way.)

Of course, the secret to this cup is that it’s really two cups—there’s a suction cup at the bottom that holds it up.

And there was once a time when suction cups, on their own, generated a similar kind of amazement from the American public.

The first reference to the devices in the New York Times, circa October 1925, sounded amazed by the suction cup’s ability to stick to any clear surface.

“The suction cup holds it fast to anything the cup is stuck to, whether it be the wash basin, the shaving mirror or the side wall of the bathroom,” the brief, discussing a shaving brush holder explained. “The sanitary side of the device of the device is stressed, it preventing the brush from being tipped over, knocked to the floor or otherwise dirtied.”

The article suggested that the device would “take a good deal of the trouble out of shaving, especially on Pullman cars.”

And in a lot of ways, the idea of suction still surprises us in big ways and small.

Last summer, for example, Michael Phelps decided to take to the pool in Rio with some noticeable marks all over his body. It turned out that the individual with the most Olympic medals of all time had been introduced to the Chinese art of cupping, a style of therapy involving heated glass cups that create a suction effect, and had been using it as part of his training process.

“I’ve done cupping for a while before meets,” Phelps explained, according to Time. “But I haven’t had a bruise like this for a while. I asked for a little help yesterday because I was a little sore and I was training hard.”

Whatever the case, it was good advertising for the technique, which is said to increase circulation.

“I’ve already gotten emails from a bunch of people saying, oh I need to make an appointment, I saw cupping last night,” Erika Weber, a licensed cupuncturist, told Fortune.

All suction works more or less the same way, by forcing out or limiting air, creating a vacuum effect, which holds the cup in place because of atmospheric pressure. It's a technology that ends up getting used in all sorts of interesting ways, like, for example, in LASIK surgery, or to help hold your phone in place as you drive. 

It's also something that's made at least one person pretty rich. 

Maybe the most famous suction cup is something that you probably associate with a bad memory: the rubber plunger, most often used to unclog your toilet.

It’s hard to give that invention a specific date, but the earliest patent for a such a device came about in 1875, thanks to the handiwork of a man named John S. Hawley.

“My invention has for its object to furnish a simple, convenient, and inexpensive device for clearing the vents or discharge-pipes of wash bowls, stationary wash-tubs, &c., should they become accidentally stopped,” Hawley wrote in his patent filing.

(As the Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog notes, Hawley’s most notable claim to fame came in the candy industry.)


But suction cups are used elsewhere, of course, from everything to to those Baby on Board signs you see on cars to repairing Apple computers to climbing up Trump Tower.  

We're even still trying to make better ones. Researchers at the University of Alaska Anchorage are currently working on prototype suction cups designed to work on rough or wet surfaces, with its approach inspired by the clingfish, an animal that’s naturally accustomed to such suctioning.

One guy who might be interested in that news is named Bill Adams, who has banked his entire career on high-quality suction cups.

Adams didn’t decide one day to start manufacturing the tiny vacuums, but in the late 1970s, while attempting to build a business centered around a device called the “window blanket"—essentially a piece of bubble wrap that homeowners would attach to attic windows—he struck accidental suction-cup gold. Window blankets were a thing at the time, but Adams’ solution was a failure, leaving him with a whole lot of bubble wrap and even more suction cups.

“I got the idea for suction cups when I saw that many businesses had signs in their window held by duct tape,” Adams told the Ellwood City Ledger last year. “I would stop and show them how the suction cups and tacks could hold their signs, look good and leave no mess when they were removed.”

So he ended up focusing on suction cups instead. Soon, his company was selling the tiny vacuums at retail, with things picking up after he started selling to a buyer for True Value. Good start, but there were problems with the original design. A Mercedes owner pointed out that his company’s suction cup damaged his vehicle because they unwittingly worked like magnifying glasses.

“It was then that he realized that not only must suction cups be perfectly made in order to work, but they also should be re-engineered to do no harm,” the Adams' company says on its website. “He redesigned the suction cups to disperse, rather than focus, light.”


So they kept at it, and by 1992, Adams Manufacturing had become the largest manufacturer of suction cups in the country, selling 50,000,000 of them that year, according to the Associated Press. Adams noted at the time that he would get fan mail from people who used the suction cups in unusual ways—including one guy who used it to put down his toilet seat, for the sake of his frustrated wife.

“He rigged up a contraption that would drop the toilet seat after a minute and a half,” Adams told the AP. “It may not have commercial possibilities, but it was a good idea.”

Among other things, the company also clears up one mystery on its website: whether adding moisture—perhaps, I don't know, by licking—to a suction cup helps its seal. The company says that “a tiny dab of Vaseline or cooking oil” will, in fact, improve the seal, a recommendation buttressed by the company's claim to having a "PhD in Suction Cup-Ology."

All of which is hard-earned experience, though Adams says he got lucky.

“I was blessed,” he told the Elmwood City Ledger. “In the beginning, we were very underfunded. It was touch and go.”

 A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C.
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

lilies blooming in September

The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are an 8.5-acre collection of lily ponds located just off the Potomac River’s Eastern Branch in Washington, D.C. Before the National Park Service acquired the gardens in 1938, they were a booming private business that exported Lotus flowers across the nation.

The founding father of the gardens is Walter Shaw, a Civil War veteran who lost his right arm fighting for the Union. Shaw held down a day job as a clerk at the Treasury Department (no easy feat for a man who had learned to write with his right hand!) and took the trolley home each night to work on his pet project.

Over the course of several years, Shaw dug, deepened, and expanded a series of ponds on his property. The objective was simple at first; homesick for the flora from his native Maine, Shaw hoped to build a garden suitable for aquatic flowers like the Lotus.

Every night, Shaw would paddle around his lily pads in a canoe, planting tubers and fighting off the turtles that liked to feast on their roots. The evidence of Shaw’s hard work was visible each summer as he continuously brought in larger and more bountiful lily harvests. Residents of Washington had never seen anything like Shaw’s stunning Lotuses, and he started selling them for a handsome profit.

Shaw was eventually making so much selling Lotuses that he quit his job at the Treasury Department and doubled down on the flower game. Now with a staff of five, the Shaw Lily Pond Company expanded operations and operated out of 45 square ponds. Each pond was separated by an earthen dyke and specialized in a different species of aquatic life. There were 5-foot diameter Victoria lily pads, exotic Lotuses, utilitarian plants destined for aquariums, and prize fish like the Japanese Carp.

Reporters didn’t know what to make of this one-armed entrepreneur and his unusual but lucrative “aquatic plantation.” The Washington Post marveled in 1908 that “the Waldorf-Astoria management alone bought 70,000 Egyptian Lotuses [from Shaw] last year at a cost of 2 cents each, and Lotuses are but one of a number of varieties grown, and they are not the most expensive by many a shining penny.”

Shaw retired an affluent man, and after his death in 1921 the business passed to his daughter Helen. The Shaw Lily Ponds were almost destroyed during the 1930s, when the Potomac was undergoing dredging and Helen’s riverside land was condemned. Helen went downtown to plead her case and succeeded in convincing acting Secretary of War Louis Johnson to purchase the gardens as parkland for $15,000. The business came to an end, but the beloved Shaw lily gardens were preserved and added to Anacostia Park. Helen was allowed to continue living at her house in the park until she passed away circa 1960. 

Underground Project 131 in Xianning Shi, China
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

A door to the tunnels

In the late 1960s, as tensions were increasing on the border between Russia and China amid the threat of nuclear war, Mao Zedong commissioned underground cities to protect the Chinese people and military from nuclear attack. One such city was Project 131, codenamed for the date it was officially commissioned, January 31, 1969.

Project 131, built beneath a hill in Hubei Province, was intended to accommodate not only the population of the surrounding area, like Beijing’s Underground City was, but also to be a headquarters for the Chinese military. That's why alongside blast doors, the bunker city included offices for Mao Zedong and his second in command, Lin Biao, plus military facilities like a council room and a communications center, and living quarters, schools, restaurants, and shops.

General Huang Yongsheng, the Chief of Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, who lived in nearby Xianning, was put in charge of the project. But in the summer of 1971, after a reported 456 meters of tunnel had been prepared, the project came to an abrupt end. Accused of an attempted coup, Lin Biao died under circumstances that have since been deemed murky, and General Yongsheng, thought to have been in on Biao’s plot, was arrested. Without its supervisor, Project 131 could not go on, and it sat unused for 10 years before local civil authorities turned it into a tourist attraction in 1981.

Today, the site features a hotel and conference facility, and visitors can explore most (but not all) of the largely empty and never-used facilities. In the past, non-Chinese visitors have been allowed in, though asked to pay twice the ticket price as locals, but more recently foreigners have been banned altogether. The site also features the grave of General Yongsheng, a Mao-era museum, and a potted plant garden, all on the surface.

How a Wild West Showman Brought Man-Lifting Kites to the British Army
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

On a clear day, somewhere between 1914 and 1918 (the exact year has been lost to time) a crowd of American military men assembled in a field strewn with wildflowers. They were dressed in the official garb of the time: brimmed hats and pants that ballooned around the thighs and were tucked into high boots. They had come to fly a kite—but not just any kite. The apparatus they had was a chain of large kites, and strapped to the final kite was a man, sitting on a wildly precarious-looking seat like a children's swing, chomping on a cigarette and holding an unwieldy box camera on his lap. His companions, gripping the rope tightly, let each kite into the air until, finally, they allowed the man to go aloft as well. He sailed hundreds of feet above their heads, a tiny dot in the air.

This might sound like a stunt performed for entertainment, a one-off for daredevils. But in fact, around 1900, so-called “man-lifting kites” were gaining in popularity throughout the U.S. and Europe and had especially piqued the interest of militaries, who thought they’d make dandy surveillance tools.

Far from just a novelty for kids, kites were already being put to lots of practical uses, including by scientists studying the atmosphere. Such was the mania for kites, British inventor George Pocock patented a kite-powered buggy dubbed the “Charvolant” in 1826. (One CalTech researcher even successfully backed up a hypothesis that Egyptians had used kites to build the pyramids by erecting an obelisk with one in 2001.)

“You could lift instruments to test the air, you could really have a lot of power in these,” says Scott Skinner, a kite designer, founder of the Drachen Foundation, a non-profit devoted to kite advocacy and history, and author of several books on kites. “You could lift cameras. The next logical thing became, why not use the kite as a lifting mechanism for a military observer?”


Although there were several versions, a basic design entailed a long string of large kites hitched together in a chain, with a final kite fitted with a seat for its passenger, often a basket. Men on the ground would typically let out rope via winch, and both the ground team and the passenger helped steer the kite. Once airborne, the passenger could use a radio phone or signaling device to relay information about the enemy’s position, and even take bird’s-eye photographs.

In 1894, early man-lifting-kite experimenter Captain Baden Baden-Powell (brother of Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell) sent a man aloft in one at a British army training center. Later that year, in November, Australian Lawrence Hargrave took off from a beach attached to a string of box kites.

But perhaps one of the most colorful and well-remembered proponents of man-lifting kites was Samuel Franklin Cody.

“He truly was a self-promoter and a carnival barker,” says Skinner.  “Really on the border of being a shady character.”


Cody was born Samuel Franklin Cowdery in Davenport, Iowa in 1867. As a young man, he acquired the skills necessary to join a traveling circus as a Wild West showman. He entertained U.S. crowds lassoing, shooting and riding horses. He adopted the name of much more famous showman, Buffalo Bill Cody, and dressed the part. He sported flowing long hair, an audacious mustache that pointed up at the ends, fringed jackets, big hats, and vests. Eventually, he split with the circus and crossed the Atlantic to Britain, where he began touring with his own show, a Wild West play called “The Klondyke Nugget” based on his (potentially false) claims that he had mined the Yukon. The play was a hit and included equine stunts so explosive that they prompted at least one person to lodge a complaint with the local newspaper. “The marvellous feat of the horse falling through a bridge at distance of 13 feet, is so accomplished—although intended to appear dangerous to the public—as to be perfectly harmless,” harrumphed the show’s general manager in an response to the same paper.

“While touring Great Britain he became enamored with kites,” says Skinner. Kite enthusiasm in Europe was flourishing; serious hobbyists and scientists alike read kiting magazines and gathered at annual fetes. Cody built and flew them, and finally decided to throw his effort into designing a man-lifting kite that could be turned into dollar signs and prestige.

By 1901, Cody had patented a version of a man-lifting kite, and according to biographer Garry Jenkins, was flexing his entrepreneurial muscles. “By then he has already written to the war office, offering them first option on ‘SF Cody’s Aroplaine [sic] or War-Kite: A boy’s toy turned into an instrument of war,’” he wrote in Colonel Cody and the Flying Cathedral.


The military was interested in kites; they had a strong advantage over the balloons they used for surveillance, which had to be inflated, were cumbersome in strong wind, and easier for snipers to spot.

“They were really very, very sophisticated,” says Skinner. “And as we build replicas today we find these were really amazing kites built to fly in high winds—very sturdy, very strong and reliable. They had to be very quick to erect, break down and easy to carry from one point to the next.”

Nonetheless, the British Armed Forces didn’t bite on Cody’s early advances. Undaunted, he persisted in his experiments: He sent a man a startling 14,000 feet into the air (a height bested only by a previous flight conducted by the Blue Hills Observatory in Massachusetts that vaulted a man 15,000 feet in the air), he participated in scientific kiting contests, and in 1903 he sailed a kite-powered boat across the Strait of Dover. Finally, the military extended a contract to Cody in 1905 and appointed him Chief Instructor in Kiting.

It is difficult, according to Skinner, to pin down how frequently such kites were used on the battlefield. Cody’s kites, although used by the army and navy in Britain until the beginning of the first World War, were not deployed operationally. Such kites seemed to be most popular with the French military, says Skinner. And of course, their obsolescence loomed as flying technology advanced. Cody collaborated with the army on developing flying machines, and on October 16, 1908, became the first person to pilot a powered airplane in Great Britain.

Such recognition probably meant a lot to Cody, who remarked bitterly to the London Standard in 1909 that, “I have been subjected to a great deal of ridicule and derision—laughed at, scoffed at, and been generally made a butt. Now it’s my turn.”


His contract with the military would end that year, but he continued to build and fly early airplanes. It was during one of these flights in 1913 that Cody met his demise. His craft broke up in the air, and both he and his passenger, a famous cricket player, were killed.

A friend recalled Cody for an obituary in the London Standard, writing bluntly even in Cody’s death about his complicated relationship with the military.

“The authorities countenanced him if they did not encourage him, but even they, I fancy, did not regard him very seriously,” wrote his acquaintance. “But Cody had genius, and to genius he added craftsmanship, a good deal of practical business ability, and an unconquerable determination to go through with what he took in hand.”

But the authorities clearly had some respect for the kite master—upon his death Cody received a full military funeral and burial in a military cemetery, even though his formal relationship with the armed forces had come to an end.


Today, says Skinner, it is important to marvel at the feats Cody and his ilk accomplished with the tools of the day.

“I think the thing we forget as modern kite fliers is that they were using materials that they were all very much used to—cotton, linen, bamboo,” he says. Today’s kite fliers have the advantage of working with rip stop nylon, carbon fiber and fiberglass.

Far from being a thing of the past, kite enthusiasm is thriving. Some builders have even undertaken the task of building modern man-lifting kites. Skinner described watching such a feat in Denmark in the early 1990s, when a group successfully lofted a man on high from a beach.

Skinner himself is headed to a dry lakebed near Las Vegas in April to “kite buggy”— the sport of being propelled swiftly across the land in a small cart powered by a kite.

“I would love to fly in a kite system, just because I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” he says. “But on the other hand, my sense come to me and says, mmmmmmm, maybe not!"

Found: A New Population of Endangered Tigers
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

The Indochinese tiger, a tiger subspecies native to southeast Asia, is a rarity in today’s world. There are fewer than 250 of them in the world, reports the BBC, and they’re endangered by poaching and habitat loss, as the forests they live in fall to logging and population pressures.

But a survey conducted with the support of conservation and anti-poaching groups has found a new population of Indochinese tigers in eastern Thailand—only the second known breeding population of these tigers in the world.


The survey used camera traps to document the tigers’ presence in one of Thailand’s national parks. The traps captured evidence of at least six cubs living there. It’s still a tiny population of tigers, but given the challenges these animals face, it’s incredible that they’re there at all.

A Basketball Was Stuck On an NYC Subway Track for Three Weeks
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

Most subway trash is there and gone: vacuumed up by a cleaning car, whipped away by an oncoming train's power, or incinerated in a small track fire.

Some subway trash, though, sticks around—and steals our hearts. Such was the case with a lone, balding basketball, which sat on the uptown 1 train tracks at West 18th Street in Chelsea for weeks, and enamored a journalist so much that it inspired a 22-paragraph ode in yesterday's New York Times.

Reporter Jacob Bernstein tracked the basketball's presence on Twitter, posting several photos of it over the course of the month. Then he started reporting in earnest.

The basketball "first made its appearance on the southern end of the station sometime around March 1," Bernstein wrote. "...this means that the ball managed to narrowly escape being run over roughly 4,300 times."

Bernstein spoke to several locals who hadn't noticed the ball. He also put some hard questions to subway sanitation experts, who explained that the cleaning cars are built to swallow up small, floaty bits of trash, like boxes and coffee cups—not hardier, more stoic ones, like basketballs.

After about 3 weeks, the basketball disappeared. Godspeed, basketball—and our condolences to Mr. Bernstein.

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to

National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming
March 29th, 2017, 10:44 PM

Prong-Horned Antelope, oil on canvas, circa 1865

A sculpture of five elk called Wapiti Trail greets visitors as they turn off of Highway 89, where rising seamlessly out of the side of East Gros Ventre Butte, just north of the National Elk Refuge, is a rustic-looking museum of artwork depicting wild animals in their natural habitat. 

Inspired by the ruins of Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and built from Idaho quartzite and reclaimed timber, the current location of the National Museum of Wildlife Art is a temple to nature and wildlife out among nature and wildlife.

Over the past 30 years, the museum has amassed more than 5,000 individual pieces of wildlife art, ranging from 2,500-year-old Native American bird stones to paintings and sculptures by contemporary masters. The centerpiece of the collection consists of works by Carl Rungius and Bob Kuhn, and it has art from America, Europe, Africa, and New Zealand. Some of the more well known artists represented are Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and Auguste Rodin. One historically notable piece is a painting of a polar bear done by Colin Campbell Cooper in April of 1912, when he was part of the effort to rescue passengers of the Titanic.

The artwork at the museum represents wild animals as they exist in nature—how they grow and adapt during various stages of their lives and seasons of the year. The goal is help visitors better understand these animals and their importance. This goal was clearly met with success—the museum was officially recognized as the National Museum of Wildlife Art of the United States by an Act of Congress in 2008.

The 51,000-square-foot museum, located just north of Jackson, Wyoming, is the second home of Joffa and William Kerr’s wildlife art collection. It first appeared in a storefront gallery called the Wildlife of the American West Art Museum in Jackson's Town Square in 1987, but the collection quickly outgrew that facility.

Alongside the 14 galleries of wildlife art at the museum you'll find a restaurant, research library, and the Sculpture Trail, an outdoor trail designed by Walter J. Hood and free to the public. It will ultimately have 30 permanent and temporary pieces of art on display, and it includes an amphitheater for outdoor performances, as well as staircases and bridges to allow visitors different views of the surrounding area. Yoga classes on the trail are offered in the summer, and it connects to the Jackson-to-Grand Teton National Park bike pathway.

The museum offers educational programs for nature art lovers of all ages, and awards the Rungius Medal to individuals based on contributions they have made to the preservation and artistic interpretation of wildlife and nature. Jane Goodall is one previous recipient.

Medieval Art Exhibit at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida
March 28th, 2017, 10:44 PM

Window Panel with Saint Vincent on the Rack

The Middle Ages tends to get a bad rap, considered among the darkest eras in history, depicted more often than not as humorless and bleak. The new medieval art exhibit at the Ringling Museum of Art hopes to buck this notion, and show that the people who lived in medieval Europe enjoyed and celebrated life and its pleasures. Nothing in the exhibit should give you the impression of dark times.

In fact, the art and objects in the exhibit are more than on display. The pieces, all created between the years 1100 and 1500, are meant to be experienced the way they were experienced when they were first created in the decades leading up to the Renaissance—which is to say, not only seen, but smelled, heard, touched, tasted, and felt.

The 80-plus pieces exhibited come from around the world, borrowed from notable museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre. They include paintings, sculptures, jewelry, chalices, tapestries, and stained glass. Some of the exhibits go beyond simple sight in an atmospheric way, as with the sounds of church bells and birds chirping. Others are more specific.

In the painting “Mary Queen of Heaven,” angels play instruments and sing as Mary is lifted to up to Heaven. Since the singing angels are holding sheet music, scholars figured out what music is being depicted in the painting, and viewers of the painting at this exhibit will also hear that music in the background. Visitors can touch a reproduction of a 16th century gold and enamel rosary and smell ecclesiastical incense in a church-themed gallery while looking at a 15th century silver censer. Labels describing festivals and the Eucharist give visitors an idea of the tastes of the time.

The sensations intended to be brought forth by the exhibit include emotional ones. Viewers may feel a little embarrassed looking at bawdy pieces like a statue featuring a “seductress” riding on Aristotle’s back or an ivory chip explaining the rules of a dirty version of Blind Man’s Bluff.

Man Returns Library Book After 35 Years With an Apology, Donation, and Explanation
March 28th, 2017, 10:44 PM

Libraries can get pretty serious about getting their books returned, even if stealing a library book (usually by checking it out and not returning it) remains a disturbingly easy form of petty crime.

But sometimes wildly overdue books do get returned, even years after the fact, by either the original borrowers or do-gooding citizens. It could be a mother, for example, who didn't realize her son squirreled away The Mouse and the Motorcycle that summer two decades ago, when life was different. Or, take the patron of the library in Great Falls, Montana, who recently returned a copy of Richard Matheson's 1975 novel Bid Time Return after 35 years on loan. 

Library officials did not name the man, according to the Great Falls Tribune, but they were grateful to see the book, a science fiction romance, returned. The "thief" also included a $200 donation and a written apology, which stated that he was "hoping for a chance for redemption here."

He had read the book at least 25 times, he wrote, and also had the volume restored and signed by its author before Matheson's 2013 death. 

“It’s one of the, if not the, greatest sci-fi/romance stories ever written," he continued. "It's absolutely fascinating."

That is a strong recommendation for any book, let alone one that isn't even Matheson's best-known work, I Am Legend (the basis for the Will Smith movie of the same title). Let this be a guide for any other petty library thieves out there with a conscience: If you're going to come clean, do it with hat in hand and maybe some cold hard cash.

Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival in Yanshui District, Taiwan
March 28th, 2017, 10:44 PM

Helmeted spectators watch as a beehive ends in fireworks.

While much of Asia believes red decorations or sky lanterns can bring good luck in the new year, locals in the Yanshui district of Tainan believe that the more times you’re hit by a rocket, the better.

Fifteen days into the Chinese lunar calendar, on the evening of the Lantern Festival, the district launches millions of fireworks directly into eager crowds. Thousands don motorcycle helmets and protective gear, take a swig or two of liquid courage, and take to the streets for a chance to be battered by explosions. At this festival, nearly catching fire is considered a good thing.

The festival begins with a parade of palanquins, each carrying a holy figurine. Giant cylinders known as beehives are stuffed with bottle rockets and placed every couple of yards along the parade route. As the parade inches through town, crowds rush to huddle around the beehives. Sirens wail to warn anyone with second thoughts, and then the hives are lit.

Within moments, trails of light scream in all directions like a swarm of angry bees bursting from a nest. Flaming cardboard rolls ricochet off helmets, leave bruises, and explode at random inside the crowd. People will throw down their own rockets from apartment balconies above, contributing to the mayhem below. The blast lasts only a minute or two before culminating in a dazzling skyward fireworks display. 

The origins of this strange custom date back to the late 1800s, when a cholera epidemic ravaged the town for more than 20 years. The locals asked the Chinese god of war, Guan Gong, to ward off the disease. On the day of the Lantern Festival, firecrackers were set off along the road in the hopes of inviting Guan Gong to the village. The epidemic subsided, but the tradition continued—and grew.

Today, one beehive can hold anywhere from 10,000 to several hundred thousand rockets. These can cost up to $2,000 to construct but the luck they bring is worth the cost.

Far from being just a burn threat, a rocket trapped inside a helmet can cause temporary hearing loss or permanent blindness. Nevertheless, people from all across Taiwan continue to travel to Yanshui for a shot at some luck of their own.

A Kangaroo on the Streets of Detroit
March 28th, 2017, 10:44 PM

It's not everyday one sees a leashed kangaroo on the streets of Detroit, so the person who filmed a Snapchat video of just that could be forgiven for expressing some animated surprise. 

The video, which was quickly picked up by local news, shows a man running down the street, being led by what is, unmistakably, a hopping kangaroo. 

CBS Detroit managed to track down the identity of the man in the video, Javon Stacks, who runs a traveling zoo. His fully-licensed zoo brings exotic animals to the inner city, performing free shows at schools and libraries, and the kangaroo, whose name is Darwin, is just one of his charges. Apparently, they had been working a birthday party, and Stacks wanted to give Darwin a stretch.

The Detroit Zoo was not as enthused, though, telling CBS Detroit that the kangaroo was likely acquired via the shady exotic animal trade. 

Still, it made for a strange sight, as evidenced by the shocked remarks from the woman filming, and while it’s no Robocop, Detroit may have just found a new viral icon in the making.

Inaugural Parade Center Line in Washington, D.C.
March 28th, 2017, 10:44 PM

Every four years the President of the United States drives (and sometimes walks) 1.5 miles from the U.S. Capitol to the White House as a part of the inaugural fanfare. The president is accompanied by an entourage of hundreds of towncars, limousines and motorcycle police, all arranged in tight V formations.

To accommodate this procession, the National Park Service gets to work weeks ahead of time clearing the path. Normal streetscape obstructions like bike lane bollards are unscrewed from the asphalt and put into temporary storage. In recent years, to keep the parade lined up, a thin blue line was painted down the center of Pennsylvania Avenue. During the parade, the lead vehicle tries to keep centered on this target.

The temporary paint will wear away in a few months after inauguration, but it’s still visible into the springtime. The practice appears to have started with President Obama; George W. Bush didn’t have a line.

The Broomway in Essex, England
March 28th, 2017, 10:44 PM

The causeway from Wakering Stairs.

The Broomway is a centuries-old footpath which begins as a rickety causeway at Wakering Stairs and abruptly disappears into the sea. That is, at high tide. When the tide is out, the path descends into an impossibly sticky tidal mud. Known locally as the Black Grounds, it is the sort you really don't want to get stuck in.

Beyond the Black Grounds, the path, known as the most perilous in Britain, wends its way northeast, running parallel to the coast for a few miles before curving back to land at Foulness Island. Before modern roads this was the only access to the isolated island, and not for the faint of heart.

The Broomway is exceptionally dangerous. The tide comes in quicker than you expect, and drowning rates are high here—the Foulness burial register records 66 dead bodies recovered from the sands since 1600, and that's only a fraction of those who have lost their lives to the tide.

Even when the surface is walkable, at low tide, it's not to be completely trusted, riddled with patches of sticky mud and quicksand, and surrounded by old mines that may explode if touched. With sand in all directions, it can be hard to stay on track in the misty weather, but even in perfect conditions it's not hard to become disorientated and lose the path. 

For this reason, the pathway used to be defined by bundles of broomsticks tied to poles which would guide those intrepid enough to wander out into the mist—this is where the name comes from, though it's also been dubbed "Doomway" due to the deadly history.

There is evidence the path has been around since 1419, and was the only access to Foulness Island before a road bridge was built in 1932. People used to cross the Broomway in wagons, with the waves splashing against the wooden wheels. Now the trail is largely invisible but for the causeway portals at either end.  

Still, anyone wishing to traverse the path can do so—you can even drive a vehicle across it—but you do so at considerable risk. The sensible will take one of the few guided tours which are run each year and which coincide with the tide tables and the mercies of the weather. Foulness Island and the area between Southend and Wakering Stairs is Ministry of Defence land, so visitors can only pass through at defined times at weekends. Sling your wellies over your shoulder and walk barefoot as your senses become numbed by the silence and isolation on the Broomway. Once out there you will be simply enchanted.

Why We Think Outhouses All Had Crescent Moons in Their Doors
March 28th, 2017, 10:44 PM

The rickety old Wild West outhouse with a crescent moon cut out of the door is one of the most enduring symbols of the era. It’s one of those images that you remember, but can’t place exactly where you first saw it. Which isn’t surprising, since it probably never existed.

From cartoons to films to modern-day replicas of historic toilets, the cut-out shape of a crescent moon in an outhouse door seems like something that is so ingrained in our cultural consciousness, that it must have existed in real life. But it doesn’t seem to have been much of a historic reality. “I have never—with my own eyes—seen a crescent moon shape in an actual outhouse I could confidently date to earlier than about 1960,” says Dr. Adam Davis of the Missouri Folklore Society. While there's not a great deal of scholarship on the origins of the crescent moon outhouse, Davis wrote a piece on the subject in 2007. “I have seen more photographs of outhouses where I suspect the decorations to be authentically pre-mass-media that have half-moon cutouts (that is, semicircles) although, interestingly, those are never the icons one sees in cartoons. Similarly, I have seen photos of crescent moons which are entirely horns-up, as if ready to catch water, but that’s not the icon either,” he says.

Having a hole cut out of outhouse doors was definitely a real thing, providing ventilation and light into the stall, but no one is sure exactly where the idea that they were commonly crescent-shaped came from.


The most commonly held theory, and the one you are most likely to find via a cursory Google search, posits that it was once the sign for a woman’s toilet. As the story goes, in the 1800s and earlier, literacy wasn’t widespread, so the common symbol used to differentiate between a men's privy and a women's was that the men's door carried a sun or star symbol, while the women's stalls were marked with a moon. According to the book Outhouses by Holly Bollinger, this cosmic dichotomy was devised based on ancient imagery. “With the crescent moon signifying Luna or Goddess Diana it became known as a feminine symbol, therefore welcoming womenfolk,” Bollinger writes. This might seem like a lofty reading of bathroom symbolism, but the moon has long been associated with a female aspect, and it's not unreasonable to think that this would have been general knowledge.

So how did the women’s room symbol come to represent all outhouses? Bollinger’s book goes on to suggest that men's outhouses were not as well kept up, so eventually, to conserve resources and labor, male stalls were taken down, and the remaining moon-doored stalls became a symbol of unisex bathrooms, and outhouses in general. One version of this theory, shared in the 1989 book The Vanishing American Outhouse (as quoted by The Straight Dope) says that it was during the mid-1800s that the general public forgot the original meaning behind the moons, and just began seeing them as the symbol for an outhouse.

This version of the moon-door’s origin (or something close to it) can be found all over the place, but the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of hard evidence to back it up. “For folklorists, one of the earmarks of the improbable is, it’s highly articulated, and yet without precedent or source. It springs into the world full-grown,” says Davis. The provenance of the gendered account doesn’t seem to stretch back very far either, with The Straight Dope only tracing it to a 1972 book called The Little Red Schoolhouse: A Sketchbook of Early American Education, which describes male/female outhouses with the sun/moon symbols.


Davis, in his 2007 examination of the symbol, contends that while there is evidence of moon-shaped cut outs in historic outhouses, they are little more than a decorative motif that “seems to have been media-generated, then provided with a fictive, back-formed pedigree to explain it.” Davis also notes that in most cases of pre-1900s hardscrabble living, building two outhouses just for gender considerations was not likely a priority given the resources it would require.

The precise origin of the outhouse moon is probably lost to time, since detailed records on historic bathroom design aren’t exactly in great abundance. But whether it was a formerly gendered symbol that developed into an icon or a simple flourish that came to define our thinking, outhouse crescent moons are abundantly used on modern outhouses. Today, you can find them on farms, in recreated historic villages, and in Elk Falls, the self-proclaimed “Outhouse Capital of Kansas.”

“Mass media originated the practice of tying yellow ribbons as symbols of a wished-for homecoming, and that is most definitely now an authentic folk behavior,” says Davis. “So here’s a cool case of a folk practice being picked up and made iconic by mass culture and then sent back down to the folk—I expect most people who are moved to carve ornamental vents in their outhouses nowadays will opt for the crescent.” Whether it was ever a commonly used symbol or not, it is certainly the reality now.

Why 40% of Vietnamese People Have the Same Last Name
March 28th, 2017, 10:44 PM

In the United States, the most popular last name is Smith. As per the 2010 census, about 0.8 percent of Americans have it. In Vietnam, the most popular last name is Nguyen. The estimate for how many people answer to it? Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the country’s population. The 14 most popular last names in Vietnam account for well over 90 percent of the population. The 14 most popular last names in the US? Fewer than 6 percent.

In the U.S., an immigrant country, last names are hugely important. They can indicate where you’re from, right down to the village; the profession of a relative deep in your past; how long it’s been since your ancestors emigrated; your religion; your social status.

Nguyen doesn’t indicate much more than that you are Vietnamese. Someone with the last name Nguyen is going to have basically no luck tracing their heritage back beyond a generation or two, will not be able to use search engines to find out much of anything about themselves.

This difference illustrates something very weird about last names: they’re a surprisingly recent creation in most of the world, and there remain many places where they just aren’t very important. Vietnam is one of those.

The existence of last names in Vietnam dates to 111 BC, the beginning of a lengthy thousand-year occupation of the country by the Han Dynasty in China. (There were a few short-lived attempts at independence before the Vietnamese kicked the Chinese out in 939 AD.) Before this time, nobody really knows how the Vietnamese handled names, due to lack of written records. In fact even the name “Vietnam” comes from the Chinese; “viet” is the Vietnamese version of the word the Chinese used to describe the people southeast of Yunnan Province.


It is likely that the Vietnamese, prior to Chinese domination, did not use last names, (or family names, which we should call them, given that in Vietnam and many other places, this name does not come last). This does not make them unusual at all. Prior to the 18th century, much of the world did not use family names. More common would be what’s called a “patronymic” name, meaning your full name would literally translate as something like “Steve son of Bob.” Patronymic names refer only to the generation immediately before and remain common in much of the world, especially in Scandinavia and the Middle East. (Keep an eye out for “surnames” ending in “-sson” or including “Ben” or “Ibn.” Those are patronymic names.)

The entire idea of a family name was unknown to most of the world unless you were conquered by a place that used them. Those conquerors included the Romans, the Normans, the Chinese, and later the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Germans, and the Americans. It was the Chinese who gave Vietnam family names.

The Chinese have had family names for thousands of years, sometimes indicating occupation, social status, or membership of a minority group. Well before the time of China’s occupation of Vietnam, the Chinese had a sophisticated system of family names for a pretty basic reason: taxes. “Under the Chinese colonial rulership, the Chinese typically will designate a family name to keep tax records,” says Stephen O’Harrow, the chairman of Indo-Pacific Languages and head of the Vietnamese department the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. “They used a limited number of family names for the people under their jurisdiction.”

Basically, the Chinese (and later the Romans and Normans) conquered all these places with all these people, and they needed some way to keep track of them so they could be taxed. But most of these places didn’t have family names, which made them a real pain to monitor. How can you be sure that you’re taxing the right Dũng, when there are a dozen of them in the same village and they’re referred to as “Uncle Dũng” and “Brother Dũng”?


So the Chinese just started handing out last names to people. They assigned these surnames pretty much randomly, but the original pool of last names largely came from Chinese last names, or Vietnamese derivations of them. Nguyen, for example, came from the Chinese Ruan. “My guess is, senior Chinese administrators used their own personal names to designate people under their own aegis,” says O’Harrow. This kind of thing happened a lot; the tendency of the imperialist to just bestow his name on the people he conquered can be seen everywhere from the Philippines (which has tons of Spanish last names) to the U.S. (where black Americans often have the names of the owners of slave ancestors) to the Indian state of Goa (Portuguese).

Ruan itself might come from an ancient Chinese state of the same name, or maybe from the ancient lute-like instrument also called a ruan. Who knows? Either way, it seems likely that some mid-level Chinese bureaucrat, in seeking to figure out who actually lived in his newly conquered Vietnamese territory, simply decided that everyone living there would also be named Ruan—which became Nguyen.

Oh right, let’s take a minute to discuss the pronunciation of Nguyen. If you search, you’ll find dozens of extremely confident declarations about the correct way to say the name. These are not wrong, necessarily, but a central problem is that, well, there isn’t really one correct way to say Nguyen. Vietnam has a few different dialects, with the biggest division between them being geographical, namely north-south. Southern Vietnamese tend to clip some of their sounds, so Nguyen would be pronounced something like “Win” or “Wen.” Northern Vietnamese would keep it, giving a pronunciation more like “N’Win” or “Nuh’Win,” all done as best you can in one syllable.

This has all been further complicated by the Vietnamese diaspora. In the interest of easier assimilation, Western given names are pretty popular—you may know a Katie Nguyen or a Charles Nguyen—but Nguyen, with a spelling that would immediately confuse Westerners, remains difficult. That “Ng” beginning is not a sound that Westerners are use to as an opener to a word. So there is a tendency to kind of let pronunciation slide, creating a whole new range of acceptable ways to say Nguyen. (After all, if someone named Katie Nguyen says it’s fine for you to pronounce it “NEW-yen,” who are we to argue?) But the key is that pronunciation of Nguyen varies pretty widely.

Back to taxes and bureaucrats. None of that explains why Nguyen is such a popular family name in Vietnam. After all, there were tons of those mid-level bureaucrats handing out family names. Why did this one become so popular?


Though last names in Vietnam are, thanks to that early period under Chinese control, much older than they are in most parts of the world, the Vietnamese never seemed to much care about them. They just never became a fundamental way that Vietnamese people referred to each other or thought about themselves.

“Vietnamese has no pronouns, like he or she or you or they,” says O’Harrow. Instead, the usual way to refer to somebody else is with something O’Harrow calls a “fictive kinship term.” Essentially, you refer to someone by their given name, and add some kind of family-based modifier which indicates the relationship between the speaker and listener. If you’re talking to our good friend Dũng, and he’s about the same age as you, you might call him Anh Dũng, meaning “Brother Dung.” To indicate age or gender differences or respect, you might substitute something like “aunt,” “grandmother,” or “child” in for “Anh.”

The last name, in Vietnam, is there, but just isn’t that important. And when it’s not that important, you might as well change it if a new last name might help you in some way. This may or may not be a continuation of the way names were used before the Chinese came—we really don’t know—but ever since, Vietnamese people have tended to take on the last name of whoever was in power at the time. It was seen as a way to show loyalty, a notion which required the relatively frequent changing of names with the succession of rulers. After all, you wouldn’t want to be sporting the last name of the previous emperor.

“This tradition of showing loyalty to a leader by taking the family name is probably the origin of why there are so many Nguyens in Vietnam,” says O’Harrow. Guess what the last ruling family in Vietnam was? Yep, the Nguyễn Dynasty, which ruled from 1802 to 1945. It’s likely that there were plenty of people with the last name Nguyen before then, as there were never all that many last names in Vietnam to begin with, but that percentage surely shot up during the dynasty’s reign.


Even this tendency to take on the last name of the ruler is not totally unique to Vietnam. The same thing happened in Korea with the name Park, originally the name of King Hyeokgeose Park, the founder of the thousand-year dynasty of one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Theoretically, all the Parks in Korea trace their ancestry back to that king, but after a peasant revolution in 1894, many peasants adopted the last name Park as a symbol of the abolishment of the caste system.

For Vietnamese-Americans, which number over 1.5 million, having the last name Nguyen is a complicated subject. “It's a signifier for being Vietnamese, but when 40 percent of the Vietnamese population is Nguyen, it doesn't really mean that much,” says Kevin Nguyen, a friend of mine who works as the digital deputy editor of GQ. “If I have kids, I don't really care if their name is Nguyen, because it doesn't really attach them to anything besides, maybe, 'non-white.'"

Kevin can’t really trace back his history using 23andMe or or any of those sites, either. For one thing, 23andMe has such a tiny number of Asian DNA samples that it basically can’t get any information beyond “Asian,” which is not very helpful. “Even if I wanted to sign up for an ancestry-lineage type site, I don’t think it would get very far, because there’s just so little to go on with my last name, and there are no records of anyone past my grandparents in Vietnam,” says Nguyen. “I’d be interested, but I just don’t think there’d be a way to learn much more.”

But that tendency to trace one’s name has baggage attached to it that not all Americans will have considered. My own last name doesn’t seem to have existed before my great-grandfather came to the U.S. in the early 20th century; searches stop abruptly at the ship’s manifest.

“It's funny, when people are really specific or proud of their last name or heritage, it's almost a form of privilege,” says Nguyen. “Like sure, everyone cares about their last name, until you're persecuted and that line is broken.” Nguyen as a last name is a signifier of that persecution, from trying not to be seen as an enemy of the royal dynasty all the way back to the actions of a probably disinterested Chinese bureaucrat.