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How the Roman "Gates of Hell" Killed Animal Sacrifices but Let Human Priests Escape Unharmed

Smithsonian Magazine

Roman legend has it that mortals could access the underworld at certain points on Earth. Located across the Mediterranean, these so-called "gates of hell" were marked by stone passageways built over geologic features like roiling hot springs or the gaping maws of caves. In displays of supernatural power, the ancient Roman priests would lead an animal, usually a healthy bull, through the passageways—an act that swiftly killed the creatures, but left the eunuchs unharmed.

Now, as Colin Barras writes for Scienceresearchers say they’ve discovered how these gates work. The study, published last week in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, focuses on a site in the ancient city of Hierapolis, in modern-day Turkey, and suggests a simple geologic explanation to the puzzling phenomenon.

Built in a highly geologically active area, Hierapolis' gate is positioned on top of a deep fault in the Earth. These fissures emit a steady stream of volcanic carbon dioxide. Though the gas is harmless in limited quantities, billowing clouds of CO2 can swiftly suffocate any creatures that pass through. 

The Hierapolis gate is still deadly to this day. As the researchers write in the study, on their first day of work at the site they found two dead birds and more than 7o dead beetles. Locals also report finding dead mice, cats, weasles and even foxes at the site. So how did the ancient priests survive their brush with the gate?

To figure out the puzzle, the researchers measured the CO2 concentration in the arena at various heights overtime, discovering that the concentrations of gas differ during day and night. With the sun shining overhead, the clouds of CO2 dissipate. But at night, the gas collects, forming a thick layer across the arena floor. The concentrations grow high enough overnight that they could kill a person within a minute, according to the study.

Since the clouds of CO2 streaming up from the fissure are denser than air, it collects at ground level. This means that sacrificed bulls or rams, whose heads were too short to reach above the deadly layer of gas, would swiftly die. But the priests were likely tall enough to avoid death, Barras writes, perhaps even standing on top of stones to boost their height. “They … knew that the deadly breath of [the mythical hellhound] Kerberos only reached a certain maximum height,” Hardy Pfanz, volcano biologist of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany and author of the study, tells Barras of Science. Pfanz also believes eunuch priests only made their sacrifices in the morning or evening hours, when the concentration of the gas was deadly enough.

The latest study supports the accounts of ancient historians. It's likely these accounts were described "very exactly without much exaggeration," the researchers write. 

These are only two of a handful of sites around the world believed to have a gate of hell in the past. Atlas Obscura's list of spots from which to enter the underworld include the Cape Matapan Caves, located on the southernmost tip of Greece's mainland; Hellam Township, Pennsylvania; and the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve in Belize. Many, but not all of these, were used for the same sacrificial rituals as the Romans used Hierapolis' gate—and they don't all necessarily kill with CO2.

At least for Hierapolis and other documented sites on geological hot spots, however, a bit of simple science can explain the gateway's deadly powers.

Hospital Superbug May Be Developing Tolerance to Hand Sanitizers

Smithsonian Magazine

Hand sanitizers have become important tools in combating the spread of infections, particularly in health care settings; nowadays, you can’t walk far in a hospital or medical clinic without seeing clusters of disinfectant dispensers. But as Maggie Fox reports for NBC News, researchers in Australia have found that one prevalent hospital superbug, which is already resistant to multiple drugs, is becoming more tolerant to the alcohol in hand sanitizers.

In the early 2000s, Australia began to systematically use alcohol-based hand sanitizers in its hospitals. Infections caused by some types of drug-resistant bacteria, like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), subsequently went down. But to the surprise of medical researchers, disinfectants did not seem to do much to curtail the spread of bacterial infections caused by so-called superbug vancomycin-resistant Enterococci (VRE); in fact, VRE infections in Australian hospitals started going up.

Vancomycin-resistant Enterococci are types of bacteria that can live in the intestines and female genital tract, and they don’t typically cause disease in healthy people. But among compromised patients—like those with weakened immune systems due to cancer treatments or organ transplants­—VRE can cause urinary tract, wound and bloodstream infections. VRE bugs are hard to treat because they are resistant to several types of antibiotics.

And Australia is not the only country struggling to clamp down on the spread of VRE in hospitals. According to Melody Schreiber of NPR, nations around the world have seen increasing rates of enterococcal infections, despite greater use of hand sanitizers.

To find out why VRE infections might be on the rise, researchers at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne studied 139 samples of Enterococcus faecium, a strain of vancomycin-resistant Enterococci, collected from two Melbourne hospitals between 1997 and 2015, reports Live Science’s Rachael Rettner. The researchers exposed the samples to alcohol solutions, and found that the samples collected after 2010 were 10 times more tolerant to alcohol than the earlier ones. Their results are described in a recent paper in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

As NPR’s Schrieber points out, the bacteria don’t yet seem to be fully resistant to hand sanitizers. But the newer Enterococcus faeciumi samples were able to survive for longer periods of time after being exposed to alcohol solutions. In fact, it took a 70-percent alcohol mixture to kill the bacteria completely, which is somewhat disconcerting, since hand sanitizers typically boast 60 percent alcohol concentrations.

In the second phase of their experiment, the researchers took four Enterococcus faeciumi samples, two of which were shown to be alcohol tolerant, and smeared them over mice cages. They then took hospital-grade disinfectant wipes, wiped down the cages, and let mice crawl around inside for an hour. Subsequent testing revealed that mice exposed to the alcohol-tolerant samples were more likely to have Enterococcus faecium colonizing in their guts.

“It shows that it is not just a laboratory phenomenon that we are measuring here; we are showing this characteristic [of the bacteria] transfers into being able to escape a standard infection control procedure,” Timothy Stinear, one of the authors of the new paper, tells Nicola Davis of the Guardian.

When the researchers analyzed the DNA of the Enterococcus faecium samples, they found that the alcohol-tolerant bacteria had several mutations in genes connected to metabolism, which could explain their ability to withstand alcohol disinfectants. But as Stinear notes in a video posted by the Doherty Institute, scientists do not fully understand how and why Enterococcus faecium has evolved this adaptation. It is possible that the bacteria are simply becoming resistant to hand sanitizers, but something more complex could be at work.

“It might also be that the bacterium is doing another trick: it’s becoming better able to live in the low PH of our gut, and that adaptation coincidentally confers resistance to alcohol,” Stinear explains. “That extra advantage that it has, by being able to grow in our gut, means that it’s actually harder to kill when it gets on our hands.”

Another limitation of the new study is its size: the scientists only focused on Australian hospitals. Further research is needed to determine whether the same patterns of alcohol tolerance are present in other hospitals around the world. In the meantime, the researchers say, hospitals might want to consider using disinfectants with both alcohol and chlorhexidine, another bacteria-killing compound, to try and cut down on the spread of alcohol-tolerant bugs.

“The alcohol hand-hygiene programs have been highly successful, particularly at controlling MRSA, but also other types of hospital infections, and I would strongly advocate that we continue,” study co-author Paul Johnson says in the Doherty Institute video. “However … we may have to add additional control measures for VRE outbreaks.”

Past Global Flood Shows Antarctica's Ice Is More Fragile Than We Thought

Smithsonian Magazine

Between 116,000 and 129,000 years ago, sea levels were 20 to 30 feet higher than they are today, inundating much of what is the modern day coastline and flooding entire islands. Exactly why the waters rose so high during that time, the Eemian period, however, has been a mystery. But new research indicates that warming temperatures caused the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse, a scenario that concerns scientists under today’s conditions.

Researchers long thought that the high water during the Eemian period was caused by the collapse of the Greenland’s ice sheet. Paul Voosen at Science reports that recent geological evidence shows that Greenland’s ice was intact and grinding along during the period, relieving it of blame for sea rise. The next most likely culprit, then, was the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a massive, unstable crust of ice on the southern continent.

To figure out if the area sloughed off its ice during the Eemian, glaciologist Anders Carlson of Oregon State University and his team looked at archives of marine sediment cores drilled off the coast of the ice sheet to determine the chemical signatures of silt deposited by three major sources: the Antarctic Peninsula, the Amundsen province near the Ross Sea and the area in between, around the particularly vulnerable Pine Island Glacier.

They then looked at a sediment core from the Bellingshausen Sea, where a stable current carries silt from all those sources and deposits them together, creating a timeline of the ebb and flow of the glaciers. When they examined the silt deposited during the Eemian, they saw that the material from Amundsen and Pine Island slowly disappear, leaving only the silt from the Antarctic Peninsula. Their data was presented at the the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

The most logical interpretation is that the ice in those two areas stopped flowing or disappeared, while the glaciers in the mountains of the Peninsula were able to persist.

“We don’t see any sediments coming from the much larger West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which we’d interpret to mean that it was gone,” Carlson tells Voosen. “It didn’t have that erosive power anymore.”

It may not take much of a temperature change to destabilize and cause the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse, as it’s currently showing signs of stress. Then again, what happened in the Eemian is not a perfect analogue for what’s taking place today. It is considered the last interglacial period, a time when the massive lobe-like glaciers that scoured the northern hemisphere retreated for a time. During that period, summer temperatures in the Arctic spiked and were even warmer than they are today. However, those changes were not driven by human-induced climate change.

Instead, it’s believed that a slight change in Earth’s orbit and spin axis created warmer temperatures in the northern hemisphere causing changes around the world, explains Nathaelle Bouttes at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science in the U.K.

Whether or not the Eemian is a perfect model, it appears Antarctica under stress today. Douglas Fox at National Geographic reports the continent has shed three trillion tons of ice since 1992, most of that from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, with ice losses tripling in the last quarter century. A study earlier this year also indicates the ice may be more unstable than we thought, with another major retreat taking place 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, when the world was cooler than average temperatures today.

But scientists aren’t just seeing movement in the West. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet, long thought to be the stable side of the continent, is also showing signs of ice loss. Alexandra Witze at Nature reports that glaciologists recently reported four major glaciers in Vincennes Bay are thinning at accelerating rates as they encounter warmer sea water. That’s on top of the increased flow of the massive Totten Glacier. Together, the Totten and Vincennes glacier systems hold enough ice to raise sea level 30 feet.

According to a study from NASA released over the summer, ice melting off Antarctica is already having a measurable impact on sea level, increasing global sea levels by 0.3 inches since 1992—with 0.12 inches of that rise coming just since 2012. If all of the ice in Antarctica melted, sea level would rise an immense 190 feet. That may seem far-fetched, however, at least one recent study in Science Advances suggests if we burn all the fossil fuels available we could indeed melt the entire ice cap.

Voosen reports that researchers hope to gain clarity about the Eemian period from additional cores scheduled to be drilled off Antarctica early next year. But no matter what they find, things in this period aren't looking good.

This Breathtaking Landscape Is Canada's Newest Protected Area

Smithsonian Magazine

The glacier-carved mountains, wild rivers, waterfalls and coastline of the Akami-Uapishkᵁ-KakKasuak-Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve are Canada’s newest protected area, a title bestowed upon the region last year.

Akami-Uapishkᵁ-KakKasuak, the traditional name of the park, derives from the Innu Akami-uapishku, meaning “white mountains across,” and KakKasuak, the Labrador Inuit word for “mountain.”

Known in short as Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve, the park will be co-managed by the Innu Nation and offer free admission for the entirety of 2017. (Parks Canada is offering free admission to all of the country’s national parks, national marine conservation areas and national historic sites this year in honor of Canada's 150th anniversary.)

Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve is Canada’s 46th national park and Newfoundland and Labrador’s fourth, set below Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve in Labrador and above Gros Morne National Park and Terra Nova National Park in Newfoundland. Park visitors can expect exceptional hiking, fishing, kayaking, whale watching and camping, all while viewing some of the planet’s oldest fossils and witnessing an impressive array of seabirds. The park protects more than 4,000 square miles of forest and includes cultural landscapes of importance to native peoples.

(Getty Images/All Canada Photos)

“Parks Canada manages one of the finest and most extensive systems of protected natural and cultural heritage areas in the world,” said Jane Brewer, partnering, engagement, and communications officer at the Western Newfoundland and Labrador Field Unit of Parks Canada. “We’re committed to developing a system of national heritage places that recognizes the role of Indigenous People in Canada, and this landscape is of great cultural significance to Indigenous people in the region.”

(Getty Images/All Canada Photos)

To visit Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve is to witness shared land use by both native people and wild flora and fauna. The Innu, the Inuit and the Métis share this extensive habitat with wolves, black bear, fox, marten and the threatened Mealy Mountain caribou herd, as well as Atlantic salmon and trout, which both swim in the White Bear, North and English Rivers.

Whales, too, frequent the Labrador North Coast, and archaeological evidence suggests the nomadic Innu have roamed the land for nearly 7,000 years, initially traveling the interior of Labrador to hunt caribou in winter, migrating to the fish-rich coastal regions in summer.

As recently as 600 years ago, the Dorset people thrived here, and in the 17th and 18th centuries, they traveled as far south as the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. But after a wave of European migration in the 1760s, the nomadic and communal Inuit lifestyle became more connected to the emerging trade economy.

At the center of the park are the Mealy Mountains themselves, a series of glacially-rounded, bare-rock peaks that reach over 3,500 feet and descend into the coast.

“The reserve fronts the Labrador Sea, an extensive, 164-foot stretch of unbroken sandy beaches known as the Wunderstrand,” said Brewer. “This spectacular beach is recorded in Viking sagas relating their voyages of exploration along the Atlantic Coast.”

The reserve will play an important role in wildlife conservation, too. It protects a range where the threatened Mealy Mountains caribou herd roams, including a key habitat along the coast and on offshore islands.

“Together with our indigenous partners, we are starting to explore the visitor experience opportunities that would be meaningful and appropriate for this natural and cultural heritage treasure,” said Brewer.

The park plans to be accessible year-round by both floatplane or helicopter, with late summer to early fall offering the optimal weather conditions to enjoy the best of the park. As with any new national park, programs and services will be limited initially, but over time the Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve will provide a unique way to discover a revered landscape.

Other articles from Travel + Leisure:

Antarctica's Waters May Soon Harbor a Boom of Baby Humpback Whales

Smithsonian Magazine

During the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, the whaling industry reduced the population of humpback whales across the globe to near extinction. But now, the large mammals known for their haunting songs may be bouncing back in some places. Recently, more female humpbacks in the Southern Ocean are giving birth to more calves, reports Karen Weintraub for The New York Times.

From 2010 to 2016, researchers collected skin and blubber samples from 577 humpbacks using a crossbow with modified darts. By sequencing DNA, the team determined that that population included a total of 239 males and 268 females. Higher levels of the hormone progesterone in the blubber showed that an average of 63.5 percent of those females were pregnant when sampled. But the story is in how those numbers changed, not the average.

The proportion of females increased from 50 percent to 59 percent during the six years. And the percent of pregnant females surged from 59 to 72, the researchers report in Royal Society Open Science. Altogether, the findings suggest "a population that is growing rapidly," they write.

Most of the humpbacks were probably born after the International Whaling Commission (IWC) called for a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, Ari Friedlaender, a marine ecologist with Oregon State University and the University of California, Santa Cruz, and lead researcher in the new study, tells the Times. (Some regulations to prevent overhunting had been established when the the IWC formed in 1946, according to National Geographic.) The IWC, with 87 member countries, still manages whaling by setting catch limits for indigenous communities. The moratorium is still in place, though non-member countries such as Japan and Russia flaunt it.

The moratorium certainly helped the whale population rebound, but the humpbacks may also be benefiting from climate change, for the moment. Less winter sea ice in the Antarctic means more open ocean where the whales like to feed on krill.

The region around the Western Antarctic Peninsula has experienced some of the greatest effects from climate change, writes Yasemin Saplakoglu for Livescience.com. The trend has given the whales 80 more days of hunting in the year. But the researchers write that in the long term, warming ocean waters and less sea ice could lead to less krill and harder times ahead for the whales. When that may happen is difficult to predict, since data on how the rebounding whales affect the krill populations is scant. But already, research teams have noted a decline in krill populations, reports Andrea Thompson for Climate Central.

Not all the whales in the region are benefiting from sea ice changes. The Antarctic minke whale seems to prefer hunting near pack ice, according to a blog post by Robert C. Brears for The Maritime Executive. Like many whales, researchers still have a lot of quesions about minke's habits but one thing is clear: declining sea ice isn't good news for them. “There are way fewer minke whales in this area than you would expect, and enormous numbers of humpback whales," Friedlaender told Douglas Fox in a 2016 story for National Geographic. "It’s almost staggering.”

Keeping whales in the worlds oceans has importance beyond simply assuring the future of a charismatic animal. Whales are critical parts of healthy ocean ecosystems. Some of that is due to their sheer size: Large whales that feed deep and return to the surface to breathe mix nutrients and in doing so support life throughout the water column, writes Brian Clark Howard for National Geographic. Migrating whales likewise move nutrients from different latitudes.

The declines in whale populations after commercial whaling were so profound that researchers are only now beginning to understand the importance of having whales in the ocean.

North America Used to Have its Very Own Hyena

Smithsonian Magazine

Think of a hyena, and you'll probably picture a giggly beast loping across the east African savanna—or, if you’re really up on your mammalogy, one of the other three hyena species that roam Africa and the Middle East. But you could just as easily envision a hyena much closer to home, trotting around the rocky terrain of Arizona. That's right: For a time, America had its very own hyena.

The beast’s introduction to paleontologists began in 1901. That year, workmen at the Val Verde Copper Mines in Anita, Arizona were poking around nearby limestone exposures when they came across a wealth of broken fossil mammal bones. News of the find got out to paleontologist B.C. Bicknell, and the legendary fossil hunter Barnum Brown even came out from New York to pick up a few specimens in 1904. The haul included the remains of squirrels, pocket gophers, pronghorn, and what at first looked to be jaw fragments from a big cat.

However, for reasons unknown, no one rushed to describe the fossils. Eventually the bones made their way to what’s now the National Museum of Natural History, and it was there that paleontologist Oliver Perry Hay determined that the fossilized feline was really something else. The cusps and troughs of the preserved teeth—telltale clues for mammal paleontologists—allowed Hay to figure out the jaw had belonged to a hyena, the first and only species of its kind to make it to North America.

This was enough to give the extinct carnivore its own distinct title. Hay chose Chasmaporthetes ossifragus, writing: “The name of this [genus] makes allusion to the Grand Canyon, whose beginning this animal may have witnessed.” (New geologic estimates have pushed the formation of the Grand Canyon much further back in time, but the poetry still clings to the title.)

But how did the hyena get to North America, and how did it live?

After Hay’s initial description, Chasmaporthetes specimens of different species were found in Africa, Europe and Asia. These specimens track this hyena’s origin in the Old World before, sometime between 5 and 3 million years ago, it traveled over the Bering Land Bridge. From there, the beasts got as far south as northern Mexico and as far east as Florida.

Even though the American species was first to be named, Chasmaporthetes fossils found in Africa, Europe and Asia are more complete. According to Zhijie Jack Tseng, an expert on fossil carnivores at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, only a few isolated teeth, skull fragments and limb bone pieces have been found. “I would say no more than 30 percent of the skeleton of Chasmaporthetes is known” from America, Tseng says.

Still, it’s enough to know that Chasmaporthetes really was a hyena that mingled with America’s ancient fauna. For a time, between 3 and 1.5 million years ago, hyenas coexisted with sabercats, bone-crushing dogs, mastodons, pronghorn and other mammals that made North America a mix of the strange and the familiar.

We know what Chasmaporthetes looked like mostly because of finds elsewhere. Compared to today’s spotted hyenas, fossils show, this extinct species was a bit smaller and lacked the hunched posture. Instead Chasmaporthetes had proportions more like a wolf, “with relatively elongated foot bones indicative of increased running capability compared to spotted hyenas,” Tseng says. In other words, this was a running hyena—even better-suited to chasing down prey over long distances than even today’s spotted hyena is.

And much like its modern relatives, Chasmaporthetes had an impressive bite. “A study of skull mechanics by my Spanish colleagues and I demonstrated that the skull of Chasmaporthetes was just as capable of handling bone-cracking forces as spotted hyenas,” Tseng says. Chasmaporthetes may have crunched bone less often than modern hyenas because of its smaller size, but it nevertheless was capable of turning a carcass to splinters.

Chasmaporthetes wasn’t the only carnivore capable of such feats during its heyday. The continent was also home to wild dogs capable of running down prey and busting bones. “Hyenas and canids seem to have had a multi-million year competition for dominance,” Tseng says, “and dogs were ultimately victorious.” Exactly why the hyenas died back, though, is a mystery. It may be that the dogs were simply more adept at catching prey, outcompeting Chasmaporthetes.

The very last of their kind seem to come from the 1 million year old deposits of El Golfo, Mexico, on the southern part of their range. This may have been a last refuge from the wolves that made their way back into North America and were chasing down the same prey.

Still, the hyena had a good run. The geographic span of Chasmaporthetes fossils from Africa to Europe to Asia to North America “makes them one of the most widespread carnivorans of all time, only dwarfed by canids such as the red fox,” Tseng says. And there may be much more of them yet to find. “The fact that all Chasmaporthetes fossils in North America are found in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico is likely a result of a big geographic gap in the hyena fossil record,” Tseng says. The hyenas must have ran across through the Pacific Northwest and the Great Plains to reach their haunts throughout North America.

“It really is a shame they are extinct,” Tseng says, “because I would love to see a globally distributed hyena living today.” Time will tell. Perhaps, if today’s hyenas survive the Sixth Extinction our species are intent on creating, they could spread across the continents at some future time. Imagine that for a moment, standing on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to hear the eerie whoops and giggles of hyenas returning to claim the southwest once more.

Meissen plate

National Museum of American History
MARKS: Crossed swords in underglaze blue; "20" impressed.

PURCHASED FROM: William Lautz, New York, 1958.

This plate is part of the Smithsonian’s Hans Syz Collection of European Porcelain. Dr. Syz (1894-1991) began his collection in the early years of World War II, when he purchased eighteenth-century Meissen table wares from the Art Exchange run by the collector and New York dealer Adolf Beckhardt (1889-1962), formerly of Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany. Dr. Syz, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, collected Meissen porcelain while engaged in a professional career in psychoanalysis and the research of human behavior. He believed that cultural artifacts have an important role to play in enhancing our awareness and understanding of human creativity and its communication among peoples. His collection grew to represent this conviction.

The invention of Meissen porcelain, declared over three hundred years ago early in 1709, was a collective achievement that represents an early modern precursor to industrial chemistry and materials science. The porcelains we see in our museum collections, made in the small town of Meissen in Saxony, were the result of an intense period of empirical research. Generally associated with artistic achievement of a high order, Meissen porcelain was also a technological achievement in the development of inorganic, non-metallic materials.

Japanese porcelain prototypes had a greater impact on early Meissen porcelain than Chinese, a consequence of Augustus II Elector of Saxony’s preference for Japanese styles. This plate incorporates the two principle styles common to imported Japanese porcelains of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The Kakiemon style is represented in the top half of the plate with the so-called “red fox and yellow squirrel” pattern. In the lower half of the plate the diaper pattern represents the Imari style derived from Japanese textiles. The line that divides the two styles refers to a Japanese leaf-shaped dish in the Dresden porcelain collection with foliage and floral designs painted in underglaze blue.

Arita, in the Hizen province of Kyushu, the southernmost of the Japanese islands, was the center for the production of Japanese porcelains that includes Kakiemon and Imari. The province of Hizen has deposits of high grade kaolin suitable for porcelain production which began in about 1600. The name “Kakiemon” refers to the characteristic enamel painting from a kiln in Arita, attributed to a man called Sakaida Kakiemon who learned the secrets of enamelling from a Chinese potter. The story is unreliable, but Arita enamellers were active by the middle of the seventeenth century. “Imari” refers to enameled porcelains that range from lightly painted floral designs to the dense diaper or brocade pattern seen on the lower half of this plate. During the period of civil war in China, and for some time afterwards, there was a shortage of Chinese porcelain available for export to the West. The Dutch East India Company, based in Batavia (present day Jakarta in Indonesia) turned to Japanese porcelains, and by the 1640s the Japanese permitted them to establish a “factory” or warehouse on Deshima Island in Nagasaki harbor. In the 1670s Chinese trading vessels added to the distribution of Japanese porcelains to European ships trading out of South East Asian ports.

Japanese porcelain was more expensive than Chinese, which contributed to the decline in trade by the middle of the eighteenth century. Pieces were brought to Dresden by agents acting for the Elector Augustus from Dutch dealers in Amsterdam. Although not a discriminating collector, the high regard Augustus developed for Japanese porcelains is indicated by his decision to rebuild the palace housing his ceramic collection and change the name from the Dutch to the Japanese Palace. The Meissen manufactory began imitation of the Japanese Kakiemon style in about 1725, sometimes so faithfully that items were mistaken for Japanese originals and exploited as such by the French merchant Rodolphe Lemaire, who sold Meissen pieces in Paris at inflated prices claiming they were Japanese.

See Ayers, J., Impey, O., Mallet, J.V.G., Porcelain for Palaces: the fashion for Japan in Europe 1650-1750, 1990, pp. 45-47.

On the Hoym-Lemaire affair see Weber, J., 2013, Meissener Porzellane mit Dekoren nach ostasiatischen Vorbildern, Band I, and on the squirrel pattern see Band II, S. 297-309.

Syz, H., Rückert, R., Miller, J. J. II., 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp.136-137.

Oral history interview with Jack Pierson, 2017 January 16-17

Archives of American Art
5 sound files (6 hrs., 10 min.) digital, wav

Transcript: 84 pages.

An interview with Jack Pierson, conducted 2017 January 16-17, by Alex Fialho, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at Pierson's home in New York, New York.

Pierson speaks of growing up in Plymouth, Massachusetts; being surrounded by "old stuff" amassed by his parents and relatives; working summers in his teen years in order to save enough money to live in New York City for several weeks with a family friend and visit museums; being particularly taken with the glamor of Nancy Sinatra and other singers from the age of six; being bullied as a young gay boy and relating more to children who didn't judge; the impact of seeing a Mark di Suvero show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in his teens; his early music obsessions with Nancy Sinatra, then Diana Ross and the Supremes, followed by Alice Cooper and David Bowie; writing poetry in high school and attending one year at Hofstra University with the intention to study graphic design; spending a month in Europe before taking a year to work in a factory and save money; attending Massachusetts College of Art and Design and being drawn to the performance program; his involvement in the punk scene; the influence of the B-52s in his '50s completist work; recalling the impact the Diane Arbus monograph had on him while at Hofstra; moving into photography; spending a summer in Provincetown with friends; the realization that he could become a successful photographer; working at Boston restaurant 29 Newbury among artists, writers, and musicians; his relationship with Mark Morrisroe; feeling the desire for fame; first learning of gay-related immunodeficiency (GRID); transferring to Cooper Union and moving to New York City; working at Patrick Fox Gallery; how a Christmas trip to Miami Beach turned into a six-month stay; being away from New England and embracing a new self-confidence and freedom; his first shows at Simon Watson and Pat Hearn; working odd jobs for several years while studio painting; befriending Robert Miller and eventually styling his home in Miami Beach; finding validation in his personal creativity when Bruce Weber hired him to style a Vogue shoot; printing 50 of his own photographs in poster size for a show; finding commercial success from works created after heartbreak in Los Angeles; testing positive for HIV; feeling more emboldened to live as fully as he could; attending the March on Washington and his response to the AIDS quilt; mourning the loss of a generation of gay mentors to youth today, and feeling strongly about giving back through teaching; perseverance and making work to perhaps make someone else's life better; working in Provincetown after being awarded a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center; the prayer-centered work in the Luhring Augustine show created as a direct result of being HIV-positive; his pink show as a celebratory show, of still being alive; his work in three Whitney biennials; the death of long-time friend Pat Hearn and honoring her at a Cheim & Read show; the genesis of his show at Regan Projects. Pierson recalls Azariah Eshkenazi, Rob Weiner, Donald Burgy, Stephen Tashjian [Tabboo!], Kathe Izzo, Mark Morrisroe, Pat Hearn, David Armstrong, Roberta Juarez, Colin de Land, Shaun Regan, and Pete Moran.

Meissen fork handle

National Museum of American History
TITLE: Meissen fork handle

MAKER: Meissen Manufactory

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain (overall material)

MEASUREMENTS: L. 3¼" 8.3cm

OBJECT NAME: Fork

PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany

DATE MADE: 1740

SUBJECT: Art

Domestic Furnishing

Industry and Manufacturing

CREDIT LINE: Hans C. Syz Collection

ID NUMBER: 1984.1140.25

COLLECTOR/ DONOR: 706

ACCESSION NUMBER:

(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)

MARKS: None

PURCHASED FROM: H. Bachrach, London, 1947.

This fork with a Meissen porcelain handle is from the Smithsonian’s Hans Syz Collection of Meissen Porcelain. Dr. Syz (1894-1991) began his collection in the early years of World War II, when he purchased eighteenth-century Meissen table wares from the Art Exchange run by the New York dealer Adolf Beckhardt (1889-1962). Dr. Syz, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, collected Meissen porcelain while engaged in a professional career in psychiatry and the research of human behavior. He believed that cultural artifacts have an important role to play in enhancing our awareness and understanding of human creativity and its communication among peoples. His collection grew to represent this conviction.

The invention of Meissen porcelain, declared over three hundred years ago early in 1709, was a collective achievement that represents an early modern precursor to industrial chemistry and materials science. The porcelains we see in our museum collections, made in the small town of Meissen in the German States, were the result of an intense period of empirical research. Generally associated with artistic achievement of a high order, Meissen porcelain was also a technological achievement in the development of inorganic, non-metallic materials.

The fork handle is painted with an animal on each side, a fox-like creature of invention, of which there are many in Japanese mythology and folklore.

While the knife has an ancient history as a tool for butchering and cutting food, the table fork is a much later invention. Large two-pronged forks existed in antiquity to assist in the handling of large cuts of meat, but the custom of using a small fork for dining appeared in the cultures of the Middle East and Byzantium in the seventh century AD. When introduced to Venice in the tenth century by a Byzantine bride at her wedding feast to the Doge’s son, the Venetian court considered the implement a decadent affectation. Nevertheless, forks were adopted slowly in Italy and spread to other parts of Europe reaching England with the traveler Thomas Coryote in the early seventeenth century. Forks arrived with European settlers at a later date in the American colonies, but their use was not wholeheartedly accepted even in the early 1800s.

The tines on this fork are in the early style and best used as an aid in cutting meat. Forks with two shorter tines (suckett forks) were used for eating sugary and sticky sweetmeats or foods like mulberries that would stain the fingers. Three or four tines formed into a curve made eating other foods (peas for example) very much easier.

For histories of the fork see http://leitesculinaria.com/1157/writings-the-uncommon-origins-of-the-common-fork.html

http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/food/2009/07/a-history-of-western-eating-utensils-from-the-scandalous-fork-to-the-incredible-spork/

Hans Syz, Jefferson Miller II, J., Rainer Rückert., 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 218-219.

Why Taxidermy Is Being Revived for the 21st Century

Smithsonian Magazine

“Ahhh, this polyurethane is setting up too quick,” exclaims Allis Markham, proprietor of Prey Taxidermy in Los Angeles. “Sorry, I’m molding bodies right now,” she adds, apologizing for the interruption in our conversation.

Markham makes a living as a very busy taxidermist.

She does regular commission work—like what she is doing right now, preparing roosters for the storefront of a client’s Los Angeles floral boutique. Markham also teaches classes on nights and weekends at Prey, her taxidermy workshop, where she is usually “elbow deep in dead stuff”—“Birds 101” and “Lifesize Badger, Porcupine, Fox” are just two options on their very full monthly schedule. She also finds time to volunteer at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, where she previously was on staff.

Markham is part of a modern resurgence in the centuries-old craft of taxidermy. At 32, she is a successful and celebrated representative of the new cohort of taxidermists, who are young, academically driven and largely female. In May, Markham competed in the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships (WTC) in Springfield, Missouri, where she received a Competitors’ Award (given to the participants with the best collections of work) in the event's largest division.

With more than 1,200 attendees, this year’s WTC was bigger than ever before. About 20 percent of the attendees at the event were women. And when Markham and ten of her students—all women—entered their work at WTC, it made waves at the three-decade-old tournament. “We stood out, that’s for damn sure,” Markham says with a laugh. Their presence was met with excitement, respect and hope. “I’ll tell you, there were more young women than I had ever seen [at the WTC]. I think it’s wonderful," says event judge Danny Owens, regarded as one of the best bird taxidermists on Earth. "If the young generation doesn’t get involved, then our industry will eventually just die out.”

Image by Bruce Stidham. A Roaring Lion mount greets visitors and judges at the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships in Springfield, Missouri, on May 6. (original image)

Image by Bruce Stidham. A raccoon takes a playful pose at the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships on May 6. (original image)

Image by Bruce Stidham. A leopard is seen frozen mid-snarl at the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships on May 6. (original image)

Image by Bruce Stidham. Canadian Ken Walker, left, moves his Sasquatch into position in the event hall on May 6. (original image)

Image by Bruce Stidham. Allis Markham puts the finishing touches on one of her entries on May 6. (original image)

Image by Bruce Stidham. Allis Markham's completed Plush Crested Jay. (original image)

Image by Bruce Stidham. Dakotah Gould, left, of Iowa helps Katie Innamorato of New Jersey install her fox entry at the competition on May 6. (original image)

Image by Bruce Stidham. A Siberian tiger mount featuring piercing blue eyes is seen at the event on May 6. (original image)

Image by Bruce Stidham. A wolf bares its teeth at the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships on May 6. (original image)

Image by Bruce Stidham. Amy Carter of Statesville, North Carolina, wheels in her completed mounts on May 6. (original image)

Image by Bruce Stidham. These "Peach Faced Love Birds" were on display at the competition on May 7. (original image)

Image by Bruce Stidham. Joe Meder of Solon, Louisiana, gives a detailed inspection of a deer mount during the judging period on May 7. (original image)

Image by (original image)

Image by Bruce Stidham. Displays fill the judging hall at the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships on May 6. (original image)

The practice of taxidermy began in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries as a means of preserving specimens collected by world-traveling explorers. Oftentimes, these specimens would become part of a rich collector’s “cabinet of curiosities,” bringing a dash of wonder and mystery to viewers who knew nothing of the far reaches of the world.

During the early days of taxidermy, protecting the finished work from insect attacks seemed like a nearly insurmountable challenge. Avid bird skin collector Jean-Baptist Bécœur changed all of that when he developed arsenical soap, a combination of pulverized arsenic, white soap and “unslacked lime,” or calcium oxide. Formulated around 1743, Bécœur kept the chemical recipe a secret during his lifetime. Upon his death, other taxidermists and collectors noticed the staying power of Bécœur’s collection and performed a little reverse engineering. By the mid-19th century, museums and private collectors were widely using arsenical soap to protect their taxidermy specimens, leading to a golden age of taxidermy that spanned from about 1840 through the dawn of World War I.

“Arsenic is a very effective insecticide because it decomposes when damp, so effectively it’s self-fumigating. It was a very effective way of dealing with insects, which historically was the biggest problem in preserving taxidermy,” says Pat Morris, the author of A History of Taxidermy: Art, Science, and Bad Taste. Despite its common usage during the Victorian era, arsenic was known to be highly poisonous back then. Today arsenic is banned in almost every country, and Borax and tanning techniques are often used as alternatives.

Before color photography and the growth in leisure travel, taxidermy specimens allowed scientists, naturalists, collectors and the curious to study life-like 3D representations of animals they otherwise would have never encountered. In his 1840 “Treatise on Taxidermy,” famed British zoologist William Swainson wrote, “Taxidermy is an art absolutely essential to be known to every naturalist since, without it, he cannot pursue his studies or preserve his own materials.” Taxidermy, especially of birds, was also popular as Victorian-era home decoration and a way for hunters to display trophies from their latest adventure.

Taxidermy was so prevalent throughout both America and England during the late 19th century, according to Morris, that a taxidermist could be found in nearly every town. Often, there were several, all competing for clients. According to The History of Taxidermy, the London census of 1891 shows that 369 taxidermists operated in the English capital city alone, about one taxidermist for every 15,000 Londoners. “Taxidermists [during the late 19th century] were treated as just another person who did a job, like a hair barber or a butcher or a window cleaner,” says Morris. “They were given a job to do and they did it.”

After the Great War, several factors played into the decline of taxidermy, but mainly the demand evaporated as new technologies came on the scene. The turn of the 20th century brought the age of amateur photography, thanks to George Eastman and his Brownie camera. In 1907, the Lumière brothers debuted their autochrome process in Paris, forever changing how photographs were colorized. Mantles that once were decorated with brightly colored taxidermy birds were now being decorated more cheaply with photos. Photography aided development of birding guides, first popularized by Chester A. Reed’s Bird Guides, and that also contributed to the field's waning popularity. Amateur birders and professional ornithologists had definitive reference texts with detailed specifics for thousands of birds, stripping much of the scientific need for private collections.

In addition, many of the big American museums—such as the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York—were done filling up their elaborate habitat dioramas by the 1940s. Finally, big game hunting became much less socially acceptable after World War II. As the 20th century progressed, the illegal ivory and fur market became the main perpetrator for the declining numbers of African species, and many governments passed wildlife conservation acts.

Image by Smithsonian Institution Archives. The model and taxidermy shop was located in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Institution Building. In this image, taken around 1880, William Temple Hornaday (center), taxidermist and zoo keeper, is working on a tiger mounted for exhibit. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution Archives. William Temple Hornaday works on a tiger model in the Smithsonian's taxidermy shop circa 1880. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution Archives. Taxidermists Julian S. Warmbath, Charles R. Aschemeier, Watson M. Perrygo and William L. Brown work on mounting a hippopotamus for exhibition in the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) in the 1930s. (original image)

Still, taxidermy didn’t completely die off. From 1972 to 1996, Larry Blomquist owned one of the largest taxidermy studios in the southeast United States. Today he’s retired but still runs the trade journal Breakthrough Magazine (with a subscription base of about 8,000) and organizes the World Taxidermy Championships—he was a judge at the very first one in 1983.

Blomquist says he has undoubtedly seen an uptick of interest in taxidermy in recent years: “There definitely has been a resurgence in interest in taxidermy in the general public ... we get calls on a weekly basis, to be honest with you, from various news sources to talk about taxidermy ... I love it.” He also notes that more women than ever before are showing interest in the craft. “While women have been involved in taxidermy for many, many years,"he specifically points out Milwaukee Public Museum’s Wendy Christensen—"I do see more females interested in taxidermy than we saw 20 or 25 years ago,” he says.

Jennifer Hall is a paleontologist and scientific illustrator who heard about Markham’s class through word of mouth. She began studying with her about a year ago and now works for her as Prey’s studio manager. Hall has her own theory about why women are helping to bring taxidermy back from the dead: “Suddenly, women are breaking through in certain areas that they haven’t been in the past. Not that there weren’t women in the traditionally male-dominated world of taxidermy, but in general there is this turnover in society, and women are really starting to break down those barriers.”

But why has taxidermy in particular become such a popular hobby? Blomquist thinks it has something to do with the increased availability of information online. But anecdotal evidence also points to something much deeper than the rise of social media and the Internet.

For a number of years, Markham was the director of social media strategy for the Walt Disney Corporation. “I really felt liked I lived at a computer and at my desk,” she says. So in 2009, she took two weeks of vacation to attend taxidermy school in Montana. After completing her first specimen, a deer, she felt a complete sense of accomplishment. “It existed in the real world and not on a computer,” says Markham. Soon after, she quit her job at Disney and began volunteering at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, under the tutelage of Tim Bovard, who now also teaches classes at Prey. The volunteer opportunity turned into a job and then into a career.  

Morris agrees that this sense of getting back in touch with the physical world is at the core of taxidermy’s rebirth. ”I think people have been insulated from animal specimens for so long, that when someone picks up a bone or skull, they are completely knocked out by it, by what an incredible, wonderful thing it is. The same goes for a dead bird ... when it is physically in your hand, you want to preserve it ... it becomes special.”

For many modern practitioners, taxidermy has become a hip and trendy art form, with everyone trying to find ways to stand out. Knowledge of taxidermy also still has scientific uses, such as restoring museum displays or extracting DNA from the preserved bodies of long-lost or endangered species.

The type of taxidermy Markham practices falls in the middle of this Venn diagram of art and science: While she considers every piece she does art, her training helps her prioritize making museum-quality, anatomically correct work. Markham also prides herself on creating pieces that are both accurate and ethical, meaning that no animal worked on at Prey ever died solely for taxidermy. Her European starlings, for instance, come from a Wisconsin bird abatement business that handles the invasive species. Markham admits that, often times, people are confused about why she wants a bunch of dead birds, “Oh, yeah. People get creeped out. Until they get to know you and where you are coming from, they think you don’t like animals or are blood-thirsty.”

Still, every month Markham is adding to her schedule of classes at Prey. To help out, she has recruited instructors from the connections she made at the taxidermy championships. Some of the heavy hitters in the field, such as Tony Finazzo and Erich Carter, are planning on joining Markham in Los Angeles to teach their own specialized courses. And all of Markham’s classes, both the ones she teaches herself and the ones with guest instructors, are selling out on a consistent basis. Women continue to dominate the clientele. “Quite frankly, if I have more than two guys in one of my classes, I’m shocked ... My classes are nearly all women,” says Markham.

Taxidermy: alive and kicking.

Hiking with Your Dog This Summer May Be Harder Than You Think

Smithsonian Magazine

These dogs have hiked off-leash to the top of Handies Peak in Colorado. Sharing the great outdoors with our pets is a favorite pastime—but as a result of conflicts between dogs and wildlife, leash laws and dog bans have become commonplace. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Oakley Originals.

America is, as we’re told, the land of the free—and for tail-wagging, four-legged travelers that were born to run, road-tripping across our vast country of fields, mountains, forests and campgrounds might seem like a dream vacation.

But visiting America’s most treasured parks and other places of natural heritage is not so easy for people with their dogs in tow. Leash laws and full pet prohibitions are so ubiquitous that for anyone hoping to tour America’s national or state parks, it may be easier to check the pets into a kennel before hitting the road than trying to bring them along on vacation.

This seemingly draconian crackdown on man’s best friend is not without good cause, however. Off-leash dogs may harass, chase and even attack and kill wildlife of all sizes and sorts. Deer, moose, birds and many other animals are regularly hounded by free-running pet dogs. Just a few examples: In 2010, an off-leash German shepherd killed a pair of fox pups just outside the Trout Brook Valley nature reserve in Connecticut. Also that year, a dog that had escaped its home in rural Colorado was seen chasing elk and harrying the animals into the middle of a river until a wildlife officer shot and killed the pet. Last spring, dogs near Talkeetna, Alaska, attacked and injured a newborn moose calf—a common occurrence in the Far North. In Florida, uncontrolled dogs are a frequent cause of death of the protected gopher tortoise, while in the Southwest, desert tortoises have reportedly been chewed on by free-roaming dogs. Uncontrolled pet dogs have also attacked endangered bighorn sheep in the California desert. Domestic dogs—whether fully feral or simply pets off-leash—cause huge losses for the livestock industry, too. In 2009, dogs killed roughly 60,000 sheep in the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture and the American Sheep Industry Association.

Other times, dogs off-leash are injured or killed. In November, a relatively rare Florida black bear attacked and injured a chocolate Lab that had been let into the woods to run by its owners. A similar encounter with a bear almost resulted in the death of a golden retriever in Massachusetts last year. Mountain lions, coyotes and even deer have also attacked free-roaming dogs. In national forests and lands of the Bureau of Land Management, dogs are often allowed to run off-leash—but hunters may also use these areas. In January, a pair of pig hunters in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara shot and killed a 40-pound mutt named Billy, who was running off-leash. Pet dogs have also stepped into steel-jawed traps, which can be legally placed on national forest lands in some places, like the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.

The problem is global. Off-leash pet dogs attack swans and deer in England. In parts of Australia, dogs on the loose are one of major the predators of koalas. A poodle recently came trotting home with a mortally wounded kangaroo joey in its mouth. In the 1980s, a single off-leash pet dog in New Zealand killed between 600 and 800 kiwis out of a small population of 1,000 in just six weeks. A recent study in Tasmania found dogs to be the second-greatest source of wildlife mortality after cars.

In the United States, the problem is reportedly growing worse every year. Attacks on other dogs and people occur, too, and for these reasons, authorities have been cinching up leash laws. Virtually no state or national park allows dogs to run off leash—not even in backcountry areas. In San Francisco, the vast urban parkland of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), for example, has been ground zero of ongoing bickering between leash law proponents and dog owners bent on letting their pets run and romp. The thing is, the park, while potentially a haven for off-leash dogs, is also a refuge for native wildlife—like the threatened Western snowy plover. Numbers of these birds have long nested in the dunes at San Francisco-area beaches and, as discussed in the Outside blog Adventure Ethics, may be chased off by uncontrolled dogs.

On many West Coast beaches, leash laws have been enacted to separate dogs from native birds that use the shoreline, often for nesting among sand dunes. Photo courtesy of Flickr user ruthw06.

Brent Plater, the executive director of the nonprofit organization Wild Equity Institute in San Francisco, says just last week two goslings were killed by off-leash dogs at Crissy Field, a beach area within the GGNRA. Plater has been working for years with several other groups to help the Park Service develop a leash law plan that seems fair to everyone, and he notes that the GGNRA has “some of the most generous leash laws of all the national parks” in spite of being home to several threatened or endangered species. At this point, Plater feels the best proposal would be to enclose off-leash dog areas with fencing. That, he says, would be “the perfect compromise and solution” to a battle that pits “a handful of dog owners against everyone else.”

The controversy, he adds, is not simply about people and dogs and whether both have equal rights on public lands.

“It’s about whether we want to take a precautionary approach and avoid problems before they happen by fencing off dog areas, or whether we want to take a reactive approach and punish people after the fact, and hopefully fix the damage cause,” he explained.

Julie Young, a federal wildlife biologist and also an assistant professor at Utah State University, has studied the impacts of feral and off-leash dogs in the United States and in Mongolia, where she analyzed the impacts (PDF) of domestic dogs on an antelope called the saiga. Young says the impacts dogs have on wild animals are far greater than most pet owners realize.

“If your dog chases a deer, and it’s near a popular trail, it’s probably not the first time that deer was chased—maybe not even on that day,” Young told Off the Road.

Young says a paper published in 2008 in the Natural Areas Journal reported that off-leash pet dogs in Colorado had driven deer and bobcats away from popular hiking trails where they had once been known to occur. In Utah, Young says, sage grouse and mule deer can be common targets for harassment by dogs. Other times, pet dogs kill livestock—and this, says Young, “can have a secondary effect” of bringing wrongful blame upon coyotes—or wolves—in northern states and Canada.

Maureen Hill-Hauch, the program director of the American Dog Owners Association, takes a surprisingly stern approach to leash laws and believes pet dogs need to be kept on leashes anytime they’re outside of a confined private area.

“We’re all about responsibility, and a responsible dog owner keeps their dog on a leash and collar,” Hill-Hauch said. “If you want to let them run, then let them run in your backyard or at a tennis court, where you can lock the gate.” Very few state parks allow dogs off-leash, Hill-Hauch says—”and rightfully so.” She believes dog attacks on people and the harassment of wildlife are more than enough reason to require that pet dogs be restrained at all times when on public land.

“My dogs have never been off their leashes,” she said.

Leash laws can be confusing from place to place, but the message is clear at this public park: There may be better places to throw a tennis ball for your pooch. Photo courtesy of Flickr user lukesaagi.

So, where can travelers go with their dogs? Almost everywhere—for dogs are allowed in most parks, state and national. However, rules here are strict and, if you’ve entertained ideas of boundless romping in the woods with your pet, you may be in for a serious letdown. Consider Yellowstone National Park, which prohibits dogs in the backcountry, on trails and on boardwalks, and requires that they be leashed at all times, if not caged or locked in an attended vehicle. In Yosemite National Park, they are likewise prohibited in the backcountry and most trails. They are permitted on paved trails and paths, and most of the park’s 13 campgrounds allow dogs—though only on a leash six feet long or shorter—and, yes, a person must be holding the leash.

Want to go hiking? Figure you’ll just tie your dog up in camp for the day? Sorry—but that’s generally forbidden. In other words, driving through a park with your dog shouldn’t be a problem. But if you hope to fully enjoy the woods and wilds with your best four-legged friend, a national park may not be for you. Note that Acadia, Shenandoah, Grand Canyon, Cuyahoga and Great Sand Dunes national parks have been named as among the dog-friendliest of America’s national parks, mainly for their relatively lax leash laws.

Want to go backpacking? Dogs generally aren’t allowed in the backcountry of national parks. However, national forest land is often a romping ground for pet dogs. In developed areas and developed campsites, leash laws are the norm, but in the backcountry, your dog can, at last, run free.

Resources on pet-friendly travel destinations provide a rough breakdown of the rules.

This boardwalk in Yellowstone National Park, like many trails in the area, is off-limits to dogs. Yellowstone, like numerous other public parks in America, may not be the best place to vacation with your dog. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nomadic Lass.

American Clowns: Performance, History, and Cliché

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Five Circus Clowns
“Five Circus Clowns”
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Our first president George Washington attended the first American circus in Philadelphia in 1793. Circus would expand from that auspicious start to become American folklife, intertwined with the history of the country. Circus performers, workers, and managers emerged from the people, and their performances attracted larger crowds than any other American institution.

Through its first century, circus focused on attracting adults, with little interest in children. All regions, all economic classes, all political stripes attended. In its next century, roughly the 1880s to the 1970s, circus drew children while continuing to market to adults. Clowns were central to that shared experience, flashing an irresistibly anarchic spirit, in one of America’s rare democratic forms. Now in the middle of its third century, circus and clowns face challenges, especially the split in audiences.

Based on my experience as a circus clown and a historian of performance, I have identified six eras that illustrate how clowns have been central to the circus—from their initial anarchic appeal, which gave way to late-nineteenth-century stereotypes that mushroomed in the twentieth century. The resulting happy-clown clichés more recently sparked a backlash with the phenomenon known as the scary clown.

Amusement for Adults (1793 to 1880s)

That first American circus in 1793 had no clown, relying on comedy in the horse-and-rider partnership, the foundation of circus. However, clowns soon joined the mix, amusing the adult audience by mocking the status quo. Beyond pratfalls, clowns generated laughs by appealing to their fellow citizens’ contrarian nature, saying and doing what politeness insisted shouldn’t be said nor done.

Dan Rice
Promotional poster c. 1849.
Photo courtesy of David Carlyon
Dan Rice
Photo by Charles DeForest Fredricks, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

This Jacksonian impulse flourished most in the great clown Dan Rice (1823–1900). He became one of America’s first celebrities by joking about sex and mocking authority. Paired with Abraham Lincoln, celebrated by Walt Whitman, and echoed by Mark Twain, Rice expanded his political comments into campaigns for office, including a brief but genuine run for president in 1867. Even as Rice’s rowdy anarchic impulse continued, he called himself “The Great American Humorist” (a label Twain later adopted) and claimed refinement, appealing to a rowdy country struggling to be seen as refined.

Amusement for Adults—and Children (1880s to 1930s)

Historians point to the 1880s as the decade that generated our modern notion of childhood as a time of innocence, requiring special protection and extended education. American circus followed suit, and clowns began to be paired with children in child-focused publicity, children’s books, and children’s magazines. While the earlier era had sporadically invoked clowns as life-affirming figures for adults, this process turned clowns into kiddie clichés, shifting focus from what they did, their performances, to what they symbolized. Though the sad-clown cliché began in adult tales of lost love, seen in the 1892 opera Pagliacci, it too turned juvenile, the sad-clown-and-sick-child as an inversion of the happy-clown.

Frank “Slivers” Oakley
Frank “Slivers” Oakley without makeup, surrounded by cartoons of his baseball gag, 1907.
Photo courtesy of Our Game — Blog of Official MLB Historian John Thorn

Segment from documentary film about Frank “Slivers” Oakley

Regular circus-goers compared clowns the way fans now compare baseball players. In fact, Frank “Slivers” Oakley (1871–1916), nationally famous for his one-man baseball gag, was better known than the era’s ballplayers. The New York Times lauded Slivers as “Laugh Maker in Chief to the American People.” His suicide in 1916 made news around the country and reinforced the new cliché of the sad clown. A romantic tale that Oakley’s lead-based makeup caused insanity made the image of the sad clown even more compelling.

Amusement for Children— and Adults (1940s to 1960s)

Clowns continued as cultural touchstones, but swelling clichés tilted the focus to children. They were increasingly incorporated into circus publicity, and the clown became a major part of TV programming. Local and national examples included Clarabelle Clown on The Howdy Doody Show (1947–1960) and The Bozo Show (1960–2001). Ronald McDonald, the fast-food chain’s symbol since 1963, was one of a growing clown-face multitude pitching products to children.

Emmett Kelly
Emmett Kelly, c. 1962.
Photo © David Iwerks, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
Lou Jacobs
Lou Jacobs, a very tall man, after unfolding himself from a tiny car.
Photo courtesy of Circopedia
Clown postal stamps
This American Circus Issue stamp (left) honors the American circus and commemorates the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Ringling. The clowns in both stamps wear makeup in the style of Lou Jacobs.
Photos from Scott Catalogue USA 1309 (left), copyright United States Postal Service (right), courtesy of National Postal Museum Collection

Circus clowns still appealed to adults, who brought a sophisticated appreciation of the anarchic spirit. Clowns were used to advertise adult products, including cigarettes. Red Skelton’s tramp clown, Freddie the Freeloader, first appeared on TV in 1952. The great Otto Griebling, a tramp clown many circus people consider the best of the century, was celebrated on his death by the New York Times. An American postal stamp echoed Lou Jacobs’s nationally known makeup, with a high domed head and tiny hat. Emmett Kelly, who created his tramp face as a cartoonist before he started clowning, grew famous from movie and TV appearances.

A Clattering Concatenation of Clown Clichés (1960s to 1980s)

This era brought new energy to clowning, as students learned to juggle, teachers offered clown classes, and Marcel Marceau’s mime tours of the United States influenced many. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus opened its “Clown College,” with a session every fall that generated a steady flow of clowns for three decades. The creative ferment persuaded many to become clowns on their own, including some who studied physical theater in Europe.

Yet even as the ferment regenerated circus, it nudged circus away from folklife, into classes and credentials. What had been relatively few clowns in the distinct world of traditional circus became a flood of amateur clowns, clown organizations, experimenting college kids, Clown College graduates, and professionals in new circuses, including a small show that would expand into an empire as Cirque du Soleil.

Clown postal stamps
Avner the Eccentric
Photo courtesy of avnertheeccentric.com
Clown postal stamps
Irwin & Shiner in a production of Old Hats.
Photo courtesy of wsws.org

Most of these new performers were college-educated, dipping in and out of circus to try other adventures or return to conventional jobs. The impact of schooling could be seen in a new sixties-infused cliché, as writers expanded a few instances of medieval jesters into the concept of the trickster speaking truth to power. Meanwhile, older clichés increased.

Nevertheless, the anarchic spirit of the clown endured. Even if national fame no longer beckoned, some clowns became stars. Bill Irwin moved from the Pickle Family Circus to PBS’s Sesame Street, then a career as a solo clown and a Tony-winning actor. David Shiner, having honed his work on the streets, performed for major circuses in Europe, for Cirque du Soleil, and on Broadway. Barry Lubin shifted from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to the Big Apple Circus, eventually playing his “Grandma” character on seven continents. Avner the Eccentric forged a solo career that included a one-man show Off-Broadway. Bello Nock combined seven generations of circus family and his own daredevil flair. The Flying Karamazov Brothers jumbled juggling, Russian names, puns, and irony. The Reduced Shakespeare Company blended verbal and physical dexterity in its spoofs of historical and literary subjects.

The “Scary Clown” (1980s to present)

The scary clown is a relatively new phenomenon. What had been an occasional instance of a child crying, as children cry at thunder or the first day of kindergarten, morphed into a claim adults made about their longstanding fear and anxiety. It is also a curious phenomenon, as people now boldly proclaim their fear.

Although many people now consider the “scary clown” as some ancient truth about clowns, it has a recent history. It did not appear in popular culture until the mid-1980s, and even then it began as an exception to normal, presumably non-scary clowns, usually as an ironic joke that the clowns were in on. (That’s how it appears in the 1974 movie The Groove Tube, when a TV show clown insists parents leave the room, and then reads erotic literature on air.) The evidence shows a specific historical process, with happy-clown stereotypes ballooning so much they demanded a backlash. Writers obliged, making up creepy, angry, and killer clowns, including these notable examples:

  • 1986: David Letterman’s TV show introduces “Flunkie the Clown,” an ironic joke of a character in bad makeup, cigarette dangling.
  • 1986: Stephen King’s novel It, followed by a TV movie four years later, features a clown who kills children.
  • 1988: The horror comedy Killer Klowns from Outer Space becomes a cult classic, contrasting “Killer Klowns” against the still-benign image of clowns.
  • 1989: The movie Uncle Buck makes the same joke, contrasting implicitly positive clowns with a negative one, a drunk clown at a kids’ party.
  • 1989: The Simpsons expands that joke, adding the addicted, depressive Krusty the Clown to the Springfield population.

  • 1990: Sketch comedy TV show In Living Color introduces Homey D. Clown, an ex-con sour at kids and angry at “The Man” but working as a clown per his parole agreement.
  • 1991: Saturday Night Live airs a brief segment in which Jack Handey deadpans, “To me, clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kind of scary. I’ve wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus, and a clown killed my dad.” Again, the joke works only because of a contrast with the normal positive image of clowns.
  • 1991: A clown is framed for murder in the film Shakes the Clown, which the Boston Globe terms “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.”
  • 1992: The World Wrestling Federation introduces “Doink the Clown” as one of its villains.
  • 1992: In a Seinfeld episode titled “The Opera,” a man dressed as the title character stalks a woman at the opera Pagliacci.
  • 1990s: A Detroit rap duo changes its name to Insane Clown Posse, adding bleak makeup, a look copied by their devout followers who call themselves Juggalos.
  • 1990s: Someone invents “coulrophobia,” a phony word for a fake medical condition, though its scientific-looking label and the cultural fashion make it catnip for the Internet.

A new flurry of “scary-clown” sightings popped up in the fall of 2016. The best explanations were the few that considered the context: anxiety before the presidential election, Halloween’s approach, and clown makeup used to publicize a movie. But all failed to note the difference between deliberate attempts to frighten and inadvertent fright (if it happens at all). A person dressed in a police uniform and waving a knife isn’t a “scary cop,” but no one made that distinction about “scary clowns.”

Other explanations lack historical evidence, especially when asserting incorrectly that scary clowns have always been an essential part of the clown. Meanwhile, some contrast the happy clown in public and some presumed private sorrow, but the same could be said for any performer, or anyone in public service for that matter. Makeup may be a mask, symbolically or ritually, as many assert. However, human features can be seen through clown makeup; in circus, it was mostly a device to signal comedy. No one declares a fear of Kabuki makeup, or of the green witch in Wicked.

Clowns Now and in the Future

For two centuries, clowns represented hilarity, and the folklife of circus appealed across the spectrum of American life: rich, middle-class, working-class, young, old, parents, toddlers, teens, rural, city, all regions, all races, all political affiliations. But as circus continues its third century, clowns drift from their anarchic spirit, often succumbing to cliché. At the mention of “scary clown,” they tend to insist they’re “happy clowns,” its own cliché that has little to do with professional performance. Meanwhile, those who have little experience with crowds, the do-it-yourself clowns and young graduates of classes, do what they think a clown should do, inadvertently agitating people by forcing hilarity, making extravagant faces and outsized gestures. Avoiding anarchic impulses, these clowns weaken the natural bonds with their audiences.

Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox
Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox collapse in The Electric House (1922).
Photo courtesy of First National Pictures, Wikimedia Commons
Melissa McCarthy
Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone in Bridesmaids (2011).
Promotional photo, Universal Pictures

Nevertheless, clowning endures—and not only in revered older figures, such as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and Richard Pryor. Contemporary performers—Melissa McCarthy, Donald Glover, James Corden—figure their own way to balance physicality and verbal dexterity. Meanwhile, Dan Rice’s political commentary finds successors in Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh, Stephen Colbert, Glenn Beck, and Jon Oliver.

Clowns now cobble together careers wherever they find or create work—in circuses, theater, shows at schools and in small clubs, at comedy festivals around the world, on cruise ships. What was true of the first circus clowns persists today: the best ones are both anarchic and communal, violating norms and joining with audiences to create the comic moment.

David Carlyon is an advisory scholar for the 2017 Circus Arts program. A former Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown and a historian, he has written the award-winning books The Education of a Circus Clown: Mentors, Audiences, Mistakes (2016) and Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of (2001).

Hand-Drum; Drum-Stick

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
From card: "Hand-drum Cha-yakh (i); Drum stick Tum-ga-shikh (r). From U.S. Govt. Ex. to Commander Island. ... Of the Unungan family. Shell an oval hoop with joints overlapping and nailed; handle notched to fit over the joint; head, the bladder of a fur seal stretched over the hoop and held in the groove on the outsifde of the hoop by a line. A sinew cord is passed four times across the hoop, acting as a snare. Unangan is not a family name, but merely the Aleutian name for themselves. - Dr. L. Black 1/4/1982."

This object is on loan to the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, from 2010 through 2022. Drum includes drum-stick on loan.

Source of the information below: Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledge website, by Aron Crowell, entry on this artifact http://alaska.si.edu/record.asp?id=166, retrieved 5-8-2014: Drum There was a man called Ugdigdang who always had celebrations . . . . He used to say to his people, 'Even when I am dead I shall have celebrations. So when I die, you shall lay me in the cave of my observation hill, putting with me my drum and paints.' - From the story "Ugdigdang" told by Ivan Suvorov of Nikolski in 1910. Drumming accompanied dance and song during the traditional ceremonial season, which extended from December through April. Young men drummed, striking their instruments with wooden sticks, while the women and older men danced. Drums with handles, like this one, were the most common, although in the 1760s Tolstykh saw another type that was held by cross-cords. Dancers dressed in festival hats and clothing, wore masks, and carried rattles made from inflated seal stomachs. It was reported in the 18th century that drums, like masks, were broken after the ceremonial season or placed in caves, never to be used again. As told in the story of Ugdigdang, drums were placed in burial caves with the mummified bodies of chiefs, for use in the afterlife. Shamans beat drums during séances held to communicate with spirits, heal the sick, and foretell the future. Drums were used in war, sounding loudly as raiders attacked a village. Bill Tcheripanoff of Akutan (1902-1991) demonstrated how to make wood-framed drums for the Unalaska City School District, using fox and caribou skin for the covers. He told how men used to compose drumming songs when they were hunting and trapping, returning to perform them in the village. Drums were also traditionally covered with thin seal skin or whale bladder.

From Elders' discussions of the drum in 2003 (see web page cited above for the full entries) with Mary N. Bourdukofsky, Vlass Shabolin, Maria Turnpaugh and Daria Dirks (Tanadgusix Foundation) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/07/2003-4/11/2003. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA). Mary Bourdukofsky: It's a beautiful drum. Daria Dirks: On the top it says "cha-yakh" [in museum catalog record]. Chaiyax^ means "music." Aron Crowell: Do you remember seeing or hearing any drums? Maria Turnpaugh: They used to have them when I was growing up. Mary Bourdukofsky: They hardly used them. They just hung like a souvenir. Maria Turnpaugh: They did at parties. Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, once in a while they'd take it down and play it, with somebody playing guitar in the house. Aron Crowell: But not with dances or old songs? Mary Bourdukofsky: No. Maria Turnpaugh: Yes, in our town they did, like during Russian Christmas they did. They'd have a program, and they'd have dancing and drums. There'd be old Jenny Galuktinoff, John Goldovoff, Walter Gardayoff, and they'd dance Aleut dances. Aron Crowell: And did they have old songs? Maria Turnpaugh: Yes, they did. Mary Bourdukofsky: What kind of seal bladder is this?

Daria Dirks: It says fur seal [in museum catalog record]. Mary Bourdukofsky: Fur seal bladders don't get this big, unless it's a very big fur seal. Vlass Shabolin: Attog^a sanx^o. (Bull fur seal stomach.) Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, maybe. Daria Dirks: Not like the canvas ones nowadays. Mary Bourdukofsky: In school we were making them out of airplane material. I have one that's made out of reindeer skin. Karen and I made it, and we used reindeer antler for the handle. Put screws through the antler and then just tied it to the stick. Mary Bourdukofsky: They always kept string there [across center]? Aron Crowell: I think it would have made a rattling noise for a snare drum. Vlass Shabolin: Mm-hmm. Mary Bourdukofsky: I've never seen a drum stick like that. Daria Dirks: It's almost as long as the drum itself. It's very thin too. Maria Turnpaugh: That's a different stick than I've ever seen. Vlass Shabolin: It must be a strong piece of wood because look at how thin the handle is. This one is springy where you just tap on it. This backside looks like it'd fit in the palm and with two fingers you just tap it onto the drum. Mary Bourdukofsky: Maybe they used it to make different sounds for each song.

Vlass Shabolin: When you tap it right at the end of the stick, you make a loud sound. If you tap it sideways, then you lay it flat and you can make a little light sound.

Smithsonian Curators Remember Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician Highlighted in 'Hidden Figures,' Who Died at 101

Smithsonian Magazine

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who developed equations that helped the United States launch its first astronaut into space in 1961 and safely plant Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969, died this morning at age 101.

Born Katherine Coleman in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on August 26, 1918—a date that now commemorates Women’s Equality Day—Johnson showed an early prediliction for math. “I counted everything,” she once proclaimed. “I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.”

After graduating high school at age 14, Johnson enrolled at West Virginia State College with plans to pursue a career as a teacher. But her mentor, William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor—who was reportedly the third African American to receive a doctorate in math—persuaded his bright young student to change fields.

In 1953, Johnson—then Katherine Goble—began work at Langley Research Center at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA, where she would stay until her retirement in 1986. Relegated to an office marked “Colored Computers,” Johnson spent her first five years at NACA dealing with a double dose of segregation. Along with the agency’s other female African American mathematicians, she worked in quarters separated from a much larger pool of white women “computers,” who were in turn kept away from their male colleagues.

But Johnson’s consignment did little to hold her back. “I didn't have time for that,” she told NASA in an interview from her home in Hampton, Virginia in 2008. “My dad taught us, ‘You are as good as anybody in this town, but you're no better.’ I don't have a feeling of inferiority. Never had.”

Striking out during “a time when computers wore skirts,” she once said, Johnson quickly proved her incomparable worth. So trusted were her calculations that astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, considered them an integral part of his preflight checklist—even after the equations had been transferred over to modern electronic machines. “When he got ready to go,” Johnson said of Glenn, “he said, ‘Call her. And if she says the computer is right, I’ll take it.”

Her work fueled innumerable feats of aeronautics, several of which were outlined in the 26 research papers Johnson published over her decades-long career. The earliest of these publications made Johnson one of the first women at NASA to become a named author or co-author on an agency report, according to Margalit Fox at the New York Times.

“Katherine Johnson’s story really shows us the power of individuals to bring their talents to bear,” says Margaret Weitekamp, curator and chair of the space history department at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “Even with all the restrictions and biases against recognizing her potential to contribute to the mission, that she became invaluable. That really speaks to her competence and her resilience.”

Though Johnson’s landmark contributions went mostly unheralded by mainstream media throughout her tenure at Langley, the 2010s finally brought her name into the public eye. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, who described Johnson as “a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science, and reach for the stars,” reports Russell Lewis for NPR. The next year, Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures, as well as a movie adaptation by the same name, highlighted the accomplishments of Johnson and her colleagues.

The film was nominated for three Oscars. When Johnson took the stage at the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony, the mathematician—then 98 years old and the only one of the movie’s central characters still alive at the time of its release—received a thunderous standing ovation. That fall, NASA dedicated a new Langley building in her honor, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

Commenting on the commemoration, Johnson laughed. “I think they’re crazy,” she told NASA in a pre-taped interview. “I always liked something new. But give credit to everybody who helped. I didn’t do anything alone, but tried to go to the root of the question and succeeded there.”

In 2018, Mattel debuted a Katherine Johnson Barbie as a part of their Inspiring Women line. Last year, Congress awarded four of its prestigious Gold Medals to Johnson and her NASA colleagues Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden, as well as a fifth medal to honor thousands of other female “human computers” who previously went unrecognized for their work.

Though Johnson herself never ventured into the cosmos, her formulas—scrawled on paper with a pencil and a slide rule—will continue to power spaceflight for decades to come. “If we go back to the moon, or to Mars, we’ll be using her math,” Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian, said in a 2017 interview with the Washington Post.

But perhaps Johnson’s greatest legacy remains well within the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere. Even in retirement, she advocated tirelessly for education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, paving a path for students free to explore their passions without several of the barriers she faced in her own youth. “Looking back on Katherine Johnson’s life, one has to wonder how much more she might have been able to achieve if the path to becoming an aerospace engineer had really been open to her … instead of being in a support role,” Weitekamp says.

“This is a moment of transition,” says William Pretzer, senior curator of history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, where a portrait of Johnson, captured by Annie Leibovitz in 2016, remains on display. With so many eager to break into the world of science, he says, we have the opportunity to learn from the past, and champion a new generation of innovators and leaders. “The torch has been passed. And we have to grab it.”

The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right

Smithsonian Magazine

In an episode of “The Simpsons,” mad scientist Professor Frink demonstrates his latest creation: a sarcasm detector.

“Sarcasm detector? That’s a really useful invention,” says another character, the Comic Book Guy, causing the machine to explode.

Actually, scientists are finding that the ability to detect sarcasm really is useful. For the past 20 years, researchers from linguists to psychologists to neurologists have been studying our ability to perceive snarky remarks and gaining new insights into how the mind works. Studies have shown that exposure to sarcasm enhances creative problem solving, for instance. Children understand and use sarcasm by the time they get to kindergarten. An inability to understand sarcasm may be an early warning sign of brain disease.

Sarcasm detection is an essential skill if one is going to function in a modern society dripping with irony. “Our culture in particular is permeated with sarcasm,” says Katherine Rankin, a neuropsychologist at the University of California at San Francisco. “People who don’t understand sarcasm are immediately noticed. They’re not getting it. They’re not socially adept.”

Sarcasm so saturates 21st-century America that according to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. “Big deal,” for example. When’s the last time someone said that to you and meant it sincerely? “My heart bleeds for you” almost always equals “Tell it to someone who cares,” and “Aren’t you special” means you aren’t.

“It’s practically the primary language” in modern society, says John Haiman, a linguist at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the author of Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the Evolution of Language.

Sarcasm seems to exercise the brain more than sincere statements do. Scientists who have monitored the electrical activity of the brains of test subjects exposed to sarcastic statements have found that brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm.

That extra work may make our brains sharper, according to another study. College students in Israel listened to complaints to a cellphone company’s customer service line. The students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry. Sarcasm “appears to stimulate complex thinking and to attenuate the otherwise negative effects of anger,” according to the study authors.

The mental gymnastics needed to perceive sarcasm includes developing a “theory of mind” to see beyond the literal meaning of the words and understand that the speaker may be thinking of something entirely different. A theory of mind allows you to realize that when your brother says “nice job” when you spill the milk, he means just the opposite, the jerk.

Sarcastic statements are sort of a true lie. You’re saying something you don’t literally mean, and the communication works as intended only if your listener gets that you’re insincere. Sarcasm has a two-faced quality: it’s both funny and mean. This dual nature has led to contradictory theories on why we use it.

Some language experts suggest sarcasm is used as a sort of gentler insult, a way to tone down criticism with indirectness and humor. “How do you keep this room so neat?” a parent might say to a child, instead of “This room is a sty.”

But others researchers have found that the mocking, smug, superior nature of sarcasm is perceived as more hurtful than a plain-spoken criticism. The Greek root for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs.

According to Haiman, dog-eat-dog sarcastic commentary is just part of our quest to be cool. “You’re distancing yourself, you’re making yourself superior,” Haiman says. “If you’re sincere all the time, you seem naive.”

Sarcasm is also a handy tool. Most of us go through life expecting things to turn out well, says Penny Pexman, a University of Calgary psychologist who has been studying sarcasm for more than 20 years. Otherwise, no one would plan an outdoor wedding. When things go sour, Pexman says, a sarcastic comment is a way to simultaneously express our expectation as well as our disappointment. When a downpour spoils a picnic and you quip, “We picked a fine day for this,” you’re saying both that you had hoped it would be sunny and you’re upset about the rain.

We’re more likely to use sarcasm with our friends than our enemies, Pexman says. “There does seem to be truth to the old adage that you tend to tease the ones you love,” she says.

In an episode of "The Simpsons," the Comic Book Guy's sarcasm causes Professor Frink's sarcasm detector to implode. (©2003THE SIMPSONS and TTCFFC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED FOX)

But among strangers, sarcasm use soars if the conversation is via an anonymous computer chat room as opposed to face to face, according to a study by Jeffrey Hancock, a communications professor at Cornell University. This may be because it’s safer to risk some biting humor with someone you’re never going to meet. He also noted that conversations typed on a computer take more time than a face to face discussion. People may use that extra time to construct more complicated ironic statements.

Kids pick up the ability to detect sarcasm at a young age. Pexman and her colleagues in Calgary showed children short puppet shows in which one of the puppets made either a literal or a sarcastic statement. The children were asked to put a toy duck in a box if they thought the puppet was being nice. If they thought the puppet was being mean, they were supposed to put a toy shark in a box. Children as young as 5 were able to detect sarcastic statements quickly.

Pexman said she has encountered children as young as 4 who say, “smooth move, mom” at a parent’s mistake. And she says parents who report being sarcastic themselves have kids who are better at understanding sarcasm.

There appear to be regional variations in sarcasm. A study that compared college students from upstate New York with students from near Memphis, Tennessee, found that the Northerners were more likely to suggest sarcastic jibes when asked to fill in the dialogue in a hypothetical conversation.

Northerners also were more likely to think sarcasm was funny: 56 percent of Northerners found sarcasm humorous while only 35 percent of Southerners did. The New Yorkers and male students from either location were more likely to describe themselves as sarcastic.

There isn’t just one way to be sarcastic or a single sarcastic tone of voice. In his book, Haiman lists more than two dozen ways that a speaker or a writer can indicate sarcasm with pitch, tone, volume, pauses, duration and punctuation. For example: “Excuse me” is sincere. “Excuuuuuse me” is sarcastic, meaning, “I’m not sorry.”

According to Haiman, a sarcastic version of “thank you” comes out as a nasal “thank yewww” because speaking the words in a derisive snort wrinkles up your nose into an expression of disgust. That creates a primitive signal of insincerity, Haiman says. The message: These words taste bad in my mouth and I don’t mean them.

In an experiment by Patricia Rockwell, a sarcasm expert at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, observers watched the facial expressions of people making sarcastic statements. Expressions around the mouth, as opposed to the eyes or eyebrows, were most often cited as a clue to a sarcastic statement.

The eyes may also be a giveaway. Researchers from California Polytechnic University found that test subjects who were asked to make sarcastic statements were less likely to look the listener in the eye. The researchers suggest that lack of eye contact is a signal to the listener: “This statement is a lie.”

Another experiment that analyzed sarcasm in American TV sitcoms asserted that there’s a “blank face” version of sarcasm delivery.

Despite all these clues, detecting sarcasm can be difficult. There are a lot of things that can cause our sarcasm detectors to break down, scientists are finding. Conditions including autism, closed head injuries, brain lesions and schizophrenia can interfere with the ability to perceive sarcasm.

Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, for example, recently found that people with frontotemporal dementia have difficulty detecting sarcasm. Neuropsychologist Katherine Rankin has suggested that a loss of the ability to pick up on sarcasm could be used as an early warning sign to help diagnose the disease. “If someone who has the sensitivity loses it, that’s a bad sign,” Rankin says. “If you suddenly think Stephen Colbert is truly right wing, that’s when I would worry.”

Many parts of the brain are involved in processing sarcasm, according to recent brain imaging studies. Rankin has found that the temporal lobes and the parahippocampus are involved in picking up the sarcastic tone of voice. While the left hemisphere of the brain seems to be responsible for interpreting literal statements, the right hemisphere and both frontal lobes seem to be involved in figuring out when the literal statement is intended to mean exactly the opposite, according to a study by researchers at the University of Haifa.

Or you could just get a sarcasm detection device. It turns out scientists can program a computer to recognize sarcasm. Last year, Hebrew University computer scientists in Jerusalem developed their “Semi-supervised Algorithm for Sarcasm Identification.” The program was able to catch 77 percent of the sarcastic statements in Amazon purchaser comments like “Great for insomniacs” in a book review. The scientists say that a computer that could recognize sarcasm could do a better job of summarizing user opinions in product reviews.

The University of Southern California’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory announced in 2006 that their “automatic sarcasm recognizer,” a set of computer algorithms, was able to recognize sarcastic versions of “yeah, right” in recorded telephone conversations more than 80 percent of the time. The researchers suggest that a computerized phone operator that understands sarcasm can be programmed to “get” the joke with “synthetic laughter.”

Now that really would be a useful invention. Yeah, right.

Old Time Portraits of Parasites

Smithsonian Magazine

There’s a scene in the 1979 movie Alien. You probably know the one I’m talking about—where the parasitic extraterrestrial grows inside of a man, emerges from his stomach and then eats him. It’s shocking to any viewer, but perhaps no more so than to those who saw the film at a young age. “When you’re five or six and you see that, it’s terrifying,” says photographer Marcus DeSieno, a graduate student in studio art at the University of South Florida (USF).

The idea that something potentially lethal could be living inside us or around us isn’t so far fetched. Earthly parasites are all over the place. For DeSieno, who grew up in upstate New York, getting Lyme disease from a tiny deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) was an all too real danger, and Alien only served to drive his fear of parasites home.

Now DeSieno is confronting that fear in a new photography project in which he snaps microscopic shots of parasites that live off of humans and develops the images using the antique tools of 19th-century photographers and scientists.

Parasites might be all around us, but going out to a backyard creek and digging up leeches probably isn’t the most feasible or wise way to find specimen to photograph. So DeSieno tapped the university community for help.

“I started out with broad parameters,” says DeSieno. “This is really about my personal childhood fear of parasites, so it should be human-borne parasites or parasites that infect humans. And the second was whatever I could get my hands on.”

Local parasitologists at the University of South Florida began providing him with specimens. Eventually USF researchers put DeSieno in contact with scientists at the National Institutes of Health. And even Etsy, it turns out, can be a resource for those in search of preserved parasites. From tapeworms to leeches to ticks, soon dead bugs began to arrive on DeSieno’s doorstep.

Just how does DeSieno create his spooky photos? When the specimens get to DeSieno, they’re already dead, preserved in alcohol. At USF’s Advanced Microscopy and Cell Imaging Lab, he dehydrates the critters and poses them under the lens of a scanning electron microscope (SEM), with the help of lab technicians. (Looking at a deer tick under the SEM proved particularly cathartic for DeSieno.)

Next, he prints the SEM shot of the bug onto a transparency—in essence a positive piece of “film”— and exposes the image onto a ferrotype plate, a form of early tintype photography popular in the late 1800s.

Back in the day, tintype photography provided a fast, cheap alternative to the wet collodion process, which produced detailed prints from glass negatives. Tintypes replaced glass with metal plates—or more specifically iron plates, in the case of ferrotypes. The plates, which have a thin film of gelatin and silver nitrate, get exposed to light when the camera shutter opens. The plate can then be developed immediately, creating a sort of early form of a Polaroid.

To process the image, DeSieno uses an acid that reduces the silver nitrate to silver particles that form the picture, and once the image becomes clear, he halts development using a standard sodium thiosulfate fixer. This removes the excess silver nitrate and stabilizes the image. “It’s going to come out differently every time you pour a plate,” he says. For the artist, “that creates a sense of mystery.”

The first images he produced came out quite formal and posed, similar to early photographs of botanical and microscopic specimen. But since then, DeSieno has played around at bit. By tweaking the chemistry during development, he can change the coloration—revving up the pukey greens and puss-like yellows to give the image a bit more “funk.” “There’s a mix between the anthropomorphic shots that look like monster movie images and these more formal abstractions,” says DeSieno.

While the project’s initial inspiration may have been personal and modern, the project’s larger themes harken back to photography’s scientific beginnings, to an era of cabinets of curiosity and Western exploration. “Photography has had a long storied history with science,” says DeSieno.

Amateur scientist and photography pioneer, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) took this photomicrograph image of insect wings under a microscope. (Courtesy of the National Media Museum)

In fact, many early photographers came from scientific backgrounds—whether professional or amateur.  And the ferrotype process itself has scientific originators. Adolphe-Alexandre Martin, who described the chemical process behind tintypes, had a day job as a physicist. An amateur astronomer and scientist, Hamilton L. Smith later patented and pioneered the use of iron ferrotype plates using Martin’s process in the United States.

These early innovators used photography to explore the unknown and catalog the world around them, a practice that’s familiar to DeSieno who takes on an amateur scientist role in preparing and photographing the parasites. “I’m taking this image that was made with contemporary imaging technology and combining it with historical process to create a dialogue about photography and history, science and exploration—past and present,” says DeSieno.

Photography was birthed by a period of optimism about science and exploration that remains relevant today even though some circles hold science, like the deer tick, as a scary entity. DeSieno is hesitant to get political in his message, but more than anything he hopes that the images spark curiosity and discussion, rather than fear.  

What “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” Tells Us About Contagion, Fear and Epidemics

Smithsonian Magazine

A mysterious plague with no known cause. An indiscriminate infection that holds a community captive. Sound familiar? It did to Washington Irving, too. Irving, a native New Yorker, made his first trip up the Hudson River to Tarrytown in 1798, at age 15.

At that time, New York City was in the grip of its tenth epidemic of yellow fever, a viral disease that killed 5,000 residents of Philadelphia in a single year and was on track to do as much cumulative damage in New York. Yellow fever, which is spread by mosquitoes, was poorly understood at the turn of the 19th century. Medical professionals speculated that it was caused by slum conditions in city centers (including landfill and stagnant water—this was closest to the mark). They blamed West Indian refugees and shipments of rotten coffee. They even pointed the finger at the luggage of foreign sailors. The epidemics exacerbated post-colonial racial prejudice and encouraged xenophobia; Philadelphia built the nation’s first quarantine station in response to a 1793 outbreak.

Yellow fever threw a bright light on economic inequality in the affected cities: families with the means to do so, like Irving’s, fled the “miasmic” urban environment for more healthful climates. Families that could not afford to seek “pure air” suffered not only from the virus, but from the terror of their neighbors: infected neighborhoods were marked with yellow flags or roped off, and few doctors were willing to treat the disease, the symptoms of which included the kind of bleeding and vomiting best left to horror films.

These were the conditions that brought a teenage Irving to Tarrytown, in Westchester County, to stay with his friend James Kirke Paulding. The young writer, as Brian Jay Jones notes in his biography, was smitten by both the pastoral tranquility of the Hudson Valley region, and its less-than-tranquil ghost stories. And it was here that Irving supposedly first heard the rumor of a headless Hessian buried near the Old Dutch Church, who “rode forth to the scenes of battle in nightly quest of his head,” as he would later write in his most famous tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In truth, the ancestry of Irving’s Headless Horseman is not so easily traced—Sir Walter Scott deserves some credit for the hellish equestrian, too—but knowledgeable readers can find Irving’s own youthful experience of plague written upon every “bewitched” surface of the fictional village of Sleepy Hollow. (The real-world town of North Tarrytown renamed itself “Sleepy Hollow” in honor of Irving’s story in 1999.)

In the nearly 200 years since Washington Irving published his most famous tale, the name of the imaginary hamlet has become synonymous with Halloween. At first glance, this conflation makes perfect sense: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” published in 1820, was America’s first ghost story, and the Headless Horseman, everyone’s favorite pumpkin-brandishing decapitate, was decidedly the new nation’s first ghost. But Irving’s spooky story of the ill-fated Yankee schoolmaster Ichabod Crane never actually mentions Halloween—for the simple reason that the holiday was not yet celebrated widely in the United States, and would not be for nearly a century more.

Why does “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” remain the original American fright-fest, inspiring interpretations and homages from Disney and Tim Burton to Kanye West to FOX? The answer has less to do with pumpkins or decapitated soldiers—and everything to do with Irving’s language of pestilence.

The story’s narrator, a Dutch historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker, describes the “sequestered glen” of Sleepy Hollow as a place with “contagion in the very air… it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land.” Natives and newcomers alike were susceptible to this airborne infection, which caused them “to walk in a continual reverie.” Their somnambulance is “unconsciously imbibed by anyone who resides there for a time…however wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region[.]”

Ichabod Crane, who is himself a “newcomer,” is described as being far and away the most afflicted by this “visionary propensity”; he is addicted to scary stories and trades anecdotes out of Cotton Mather’s History of New England Witchcraft for the haunted local histories told by his Dutch hosts. The “pleasure in all this,” the narrator Knickerbocker warns, “…was dearly purchased by the terrors of his subsequent walk homewards.”

In Irving’s Sleepy Hollow the Dutch community can “vegetate,” to use Knickerbocker’s word—or better still, incubate—nurturing its visions and “twilight superstitions” without the interference of history.  The town’s collective sickness has made it into a time capsule—each day, nothing changes; each night, the Horseman comes. But the ending of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” offers a kind of vaccination : a way to leave contagion behind – and superstition, too.  After attempting to court a local heiress, unlucky Ichabod is chased down by the headless Hessian (or believes he is), and vanishes in the night, leaving only his horse and a smashed pumpkin behind.

The residents of Sleepy Hollow are convinced that the Horseman has made off with Crane’s head, but the narrator offers another possibility: that Crane may not, in fact, have perished by pumpkin, but instead recovered from his visions sufficiently to leave town under his own steam and take up work elsewhere as a “Justice of the Ten Pound Court”. The appealing ambiguity of this ending is often lost on those who adapt the story for movies, television or other media. It’s more cinematically satisfying to see the Horseman as the culprit behind Crane’s disappearance; “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” depends on its famous villain, after all. In truth, it’s not the Horseman or the hoax that we should fear, but the contagion that grips Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod's flight, far from being an act of cowardice, gave him back his life.

Just underneath the ghostly narrative that so many Americans know and love, a darker, an infinitely scarier story is being told, beside which the fear of a “goblin trooper” pales in comparison. If we read a little more carefully, we’ll find a history lesson embedded in the Halloween tale, a reminder to contemporary readers that the pathologies of the past were just as terrifying as our own modern plagues—and just as cloaked in mystery and misunderstanding.

Snapshot: Adelaide, South Australia

Smithsonian Magazine

Origins: For thousands of years, the Kaurna Aborigines inhabitants of what is now Adelaide, capital of the state of South Australia, called it Tandanya, meaning "the place of the red kangaroo." The Europeans who founded the colony in 1836, named it after Britain's Queen Adelaide, consort of King William IV. Unlike Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, Adelaide was not established as an outpost for criminals but instead was settled by British citizens seeking religious freedom from the Church of England. German Lutherans and other waves of immigrants followed. After the Second World War, favorable immigration policies aimed at curbing labor shortages lured even more foreigners to South Australia. Adelaide is now the fifth-largest city in Australia with a population of 1.1 million.

The Appeal: Named by The Economist as one of the most livable cities in the world, Adelaide, with its sunny Mediterranean climate, has everything for both nature lovers and bon vivants. You can swim with dolphins, surf the waves, sunbathe on golden beaches, row down the Torrens river, pet kangaroos and koalas, see exuberant trees and exotic birds—all within the city and its suburb. Scenic Kangaroo Island is only 90 miles away. Even closer are some of Australia's most famous vineyards, offering generous wine tastings, pub lunches, and, sometimes, dinners. The city itself is famous for its restaurants—more than 700, serving some of the best and most culturally varied cuisine in the world, giving Adelaide the reputation for being Australia's unofficial wine and food capital. For culture buffs, Adelaide is rich in theater, museums and music, holding hundreds of arts festivals each year.

Interesting historical fact: South Australia's first Surveyor-General, Colonel William Light and his team took only eight weeks in 1837 to design Adelaide in a one-mile square grid, making it Australia's first planned city and giving it its characteristic wide, tree-lined streets, squares and 45 percent parkland.

Famous sons or daughters: Lleyton Hewitt (b.1981), winner of the 2001 U.S. Open and 2002 Wimbledon men's singles titles; cricketer Sir Donald Bradman (1908-2001), the world's best batsman; NASA astronaut Dr. Andrew Thomas (b. 1951), the first Australian to go into space.

Who goes there: Over two million of the approximately 2.5 million people who visit Adelaide every year are Australian. Of the international visitors, numbering around 330,000 each year, the British are the most numerous, accounting for 23 percent, with the United States and Canada jointly making up 14 percent. These figures are likely to go up now that that Adelaide has a gleaming new $220-million airport designed to accommodate five million passengers a year.

Then and Now: When the early colonists arrived, they celebrated their new religious freedom by building so many churches that Adelaide became known as the city of churches. But pubs, restaurants and nightclubs have long greatly outnumbered the churches. While Adelaide still retains aspects of an English town, (many of the street names hark back to the old continent) the waves of immigrants have given the city a cosmopolitan feel. One way in which it has not changed—171 years after it was planned as a city surrounded by green, it retains almost all of its original 1,729 acres of parkland.

Image by Photo courtesy South Australia Tourism Commission. Adelaide’s skyline, as seen from Victoria Square, reflects South Australia’s relatively prosperous times. It has an AAA international credit rating, employment is at a record level and business investment has gone up by 126% in the past eight years. (original image)

Image by Photo courtesy South Australia Tourism Commission. Located on the western part of Kangaroo Island, on the Flinders Chase National Park, one of five protected wilderness areas of the island, the so-called Remarkable Rocks look more like sculpture than boulder. They have become a symbol of the island—Australia’s third largest. (original image)

Image by Photo courtesy South Australia Tourism Commission. World-class wines and excellent restaurants have combined to make Adelaide Australia’s unofficial food and wine capital. The range of eateries is vast and includes many ethnic cuisines. (original image)

Image by Photo courtesy South Australia Tourism Commission. On Rundle Mall, Adelaide’s main pedestrian precinct, department stores mingle with food courts, restaurants, boutiques, pubs and coffee shops. On Sundays in the summer, stalls sell food, clothing, jewelry, art and wine while musicians entertain visitors. (original image)

Image by Photo courtesy South Australia Tourism Commission. The Barossa vineyards near Adelaide are among the most famous in the world and include some wineries that have become familiar names to Americans like Jacob’s Creek. The vintners hold daylong wine tastings and offer pub lunches as well as more elaborate meals. (original image)

Image by Photo Dina Modianot-Fox. Sky-high housing prices and non-stop construction attest to the popularity of Glenelg, Adelaide's booming seaside resort. A modern tram provides transport to the city in less than half an hour. Jetty Road, the main artery, is full of shops and restaurants crammed with visitors. (original image)

Image by Photo courtesy Art Gallery of South Australia. King William Street, shown here in a picture taken between 1872 and 1877, dissects the city’s downtown area. The widest main street of all Australian capitals, it is the key artery for public transport and features a free tram that goes from the north to the south part of the central business district. (original image)

Image by Photo courtesy South Australia Tourism Commission. Some 100 species of birds and native mammals, like kangaroos and wallabies, are just 25 minutes from Adelaide, in the Adelaide Hills. The Cleland Wildlife Park, an open range sanctuary in a natural bushland setting on Mount Lofty lets visitors get up close and personal with the natural inhabitants. The Mount Lofty summit offers spectacular views of Adelaide. (original image)

Image by Photo courtesy South Australia Tourism Commission. Adelaide’s 135-year old central market is the largest fresh produce market in the Southern hemisphere, with over 120 specialty shops and stalls. The most visited tourist destination in South Australia, it mirrors Adelaide’s waves of immigration with an assortment of ethnic delicacies, from Lebanese bread to Malaysian laksa and Italian marinara. (original image)

Image by Photo courtesy South Australia Tourism Commission. Easily accessible by ferry from Adelaide, Kangaroo Island is regarded as one of earth's last unspoiled refuges, with half of its bushland still intact from when it was discovered in 1802. Pelicans, seals, echidnas, platypi, goannas, wallabies, kangaroos and koalas (now more numerous than kangaroos) are all in abundant supply. (original image)

Tabasco and the war against bland military meals

National Museum of American History

Object Project new media assistant Caitlin Kearney explores the history behind how American soldiers have used Tabasco sauce to spice up their military meals. Opening in July 2015, the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project will give visitors a closer look at everyday things that have changed our daily lives. It will include a look at the origins of convenient prepackaged food items.

Tabasco: It's the beloved tangy red sauce used to spice up meals all over the world, from humble diner booths to the Queen of England's table. For the past few months, I've been doing research for The Taylor Foundation Object Project, opening in July, an exhibition about things that have transformed daily life. It will encourage visitors to take a closer look at some objects we use all the time but might take for granted, like prepackaged foods. 

Victorian trading card advertising Tabasco sauce, 1900

Tabasco struck me as an important addition to the American diet, especially as it grew to become a part of everyday consumption. The hot sauce especially caught on in the 1950s as the company expanded its advertising efforts and as Americans' palates became more adventurous (learn more about changing tastes in our FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000, exhibition!).

Limited edition Tabasco bottle produced for military, 1950s

In addition to its popularity among civilians, Tabasco also has an intriguing military history, particularly in connection with the Vietnam War. This year, April 30 marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, so I decided to take a closer look at one small aspect of American soldiers' daily lives during that time: Tabasco's connections to our troops and what they ate while they were away from home.

3 black and white photographs depicting equipment of salt mine

The famous hot sauce was actually born out of a major American conflict, the Civil War. The McIlhenny family, which still runs the McIlhenny Company that produces Tabasco, fled their plantation on Avery Island, Louisiana, when the Union Army came to town. Upon returning after the war, the McIlhennys found that their garden of Capsicum peppers survived. Combining these peppers with salt from the island's mines, the McIlhennys began selling their legendary hot sauce in 1868.

 

Vietnam War C-ration meal

During World War I, the military made an effort to deliver hot meals to troops in the field. "Trench rations," as they were called, consisted of canned meats like corned beef and sardines. These meals grew repetitive and were cumbersome to transport—the heavy cans were intended to feed 25 men. The subsequent C-ration was an attempt to deliver more nutritionally balanced meals, and they became the soldiers' bread and butter for several years to come. A future Tabasco CEO, Walter McIlhenny, served in the Marines during World War II and found that he and his compatriots also quickly grew tired of their bland C-ration meals.

Cover of Charlie Ration Cookbook

By the Vietnam War, Walter was leading Tabasco and saw a prime opportunity: a chance to give soldiers a taste of home and advertise Tabasco at the same time. In 1966, Tabasco published the Charlie Ration Cookbook or No Food Is Too Good for the Man Up Front. The pocket-sized cookbook was wrapped around a two-ounce bottle of Tabasco and placed in a waterproof tube for shipping to soldiers in Vietnam. Newspaper ads suggested "Send YOUR man overseas some new food ideas and a few laughs, too," all for just $1.

The Charlie Ration Cookbook certainly delivered laughs, as promised. Recipe names included "Cease Fire Casserole" and "Fox Hole Dinner for Two." The cookbook's introduction brings to mind a comical image of soldiers donning aprons over their fatigues, ready to prepare a sophisticated entrée: "G.I. Joe has gone gourmet. These recipes were created for the fighting man in the field. Bon appétit."

Lt. Doug Miller eating a meal in Vietnam

The Charlie Ration Cookbook aimed to provide recipes involving items commonly available in C-rations, combined with Tabasco and some foods that might be found locally in Vietnam. However, some of the ingredients seemed a bit far-fetched. A recipe for "Fish with Front Line Stuffing" first instructs the military chef to "Catch a fish." Vietnam returnees interviewed in a 1967 newspaper article noted that one of the complications with the cookbook was that they avoided native foods for fear of diseases, commonly nicknamed "Ho Chi Minh's Revenge." Chris Woelk, who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, distinctly remembers the trials of cooking at war: "The cookbook often called for ingredients we did not have, but the bottle of Tabasco sauce was always ready to aid any crappy 1968 C-ration dish."

The Meal, Combat, Individual (MCI) replaced the C-ration in 1958 but remained nearly identical to its predecessor, and troops continued to use the popular C-ration, or "Charlie rats," moniker. Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) replaced MCIs in 1981, with lightweight packaging instead of cans. Troops grew so fond of Tabasco sauce that it was officially included in MREs, starting with the Gulf War in 1990. Most recently, in 2012, the military switched over from 1/8-ounce glass bottles of Tabasco to ketchup-sized packets in MREs, for the sake of minimizing weight and cost. Despite the new shape, Tabasco's recipe remains unchanged and a favorite among soldiers for spicing up their military meals while they're away from home.

Caitlin Kearney is a new media assistant for The Taylor Foundation Object Project. She is a student in the Museum Studies program at The George Washington University. Previously, she has blogged about 1903 deodorant and Halloween candy.

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Mulford Rabies Vaccine Outfit

National Museum of American History
"Twenty-one raccoons, seven skunks, four foxes, a bat, a cat, and a cow." Although this sounds like the refrain of a children's song, it is instead the tally of rabies diagnoses this year in Fairfax County, Virginia. The list appeared in the paper on World Rabies Day, September 28, which coincides with the 118th anniversary of the death of Louis Pasteur, the famous French scientist who developed the first rabies vaccine in 1885. (Emile Roux, a lesser-known scientist who worked with Pasteur on the vaccine, should also be mentioned.)

In some parts of the world today, rabies is still responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people a year. The Fairfax County list unsurprisingly included no human victims, as incidents of rabies in people are rare in the United States, where treatment is widely available and our pets are usually well-vaccinated. However, we can tell from objects in the museum's collection that human rabies deaths in the United States were not always so rare.

Shortly after Pasteur successfully treated his first rabies patient in France, four boys from Newark, New Jersey, were bitten by a dog suspected of carrying the disease. A national campaign was launched to send the boys to Pasteur for treatment, and the story became a media sensation. It seemed that the entire nation was following the boys, who went to France for Pasteur's treatment and returned home as "heroes," even taking a subsequent tour of American cities.

This event helped launch the establishment of "Pasteur Institutes" in many American cities in order to provide rabies vaccines and treatment closer to home. Even so, many people would have to travel, and bear the time and expense of an extended stay, to receive the treatment that required several weeks of injections.

In 1911, Philadelphia drug company H. K. Mulford announced a new rabies treatment kit that could be shipped directly to doctors and was simple enough that "physicians who have had no previous experience may successfully apply it." The kit is a reminder that even the best medicine is of no consequence if it is not available and affordable.

The treatment consisted of 25 injections of rabies vaccine: three on the first day, two on the second, two on the third, and one each day after for 18 days. Each dose was slightly stronger, or more virulent, than the preceding, so that the body could build up immunity. Because the vaccine had to be "fresh" to be effective it could not be stocked by druggists. Subsequent daily doses were shipped directly from Philadelphia in a special Caloris vacuum bottle (not unlike your coffee thermos).

The museum's rabies vaccine kit, from the early 1920s, contains the following: three ampules of rabies vaccine, doses one, two, and three; 26 syringes with physiological salt solution; 26 needles for the syringes; two metal piston rods and two metal finger rests for the syringes; one two-dram vial of tincture of iodine; two charts for recording cases; one letter of general instructions; two stamped return envelopes; one record-of-treatment blank; and one vial of sterile wires. The treatment at this time had been reduced to only 21 doses to be administered one a day for 21 days, and the Caloris vacuum bottle was replaced with a cardboard mailing tube.

Today the post-exposure treatment for rabies consists of four doses of vaccine given over a two-week period. The injections are usually given in the upper arm.

When Batman Went "Bam!" and "Pow"

Smithsonian Magazine

Holy time passage! January 12 marks the anniversary of the start of the “Batman” TV show in 1966.

The colorful tongue-in-cheek superhero romp, initially aired twice a week, became a quick sensation, with its arch, campy tone, its “POW!” and “BLAM!” fight cards seem lifted from pop art, and na-na-na-na theme song.

“Batman” lasted just three years and yielded 120 episodes. But it created a whole new generation of fans for the crime solving comic book hero first devised in 1939, long before he became a much darker figure in big screen blockbusters (who indeed will return March 25 in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). 

The classic show’s Batman and Robin, as portrayed by Adam West and Burt Ward, are still strong draws at comic book conventions on the nostalgia circuit. And as the only other surviving member of the cast, Julie Newmar, donated her shapely Catwoman costume to the Smithsonian eight years ago.

It has been displayed in a glass case on the third floor of the Museum of American History in Washington, as one of the “National Treasures of Popular Culture,” among such artifacts as the original Kermit the Frog, Archie Bunker’s chair and Eddie Van Halen’s guitar.

Julie Newmar's Catwoman costume from T.V.'s "Batman" was donated in 2008 and was displayed as one of the "National Treasures of Popular Culture." (National Museum of American History)

“It’s my bragging point, are you kidding?” says Newmar, still a purr in her voice at 82. 

The distinctive black outfit, with topping ears, was made just for her, and clung to her frame. “I believe the material was called Lurex,” she says in an interview from Los Angeles. “It was woven in two different directions—one has this reflective, shiny blue midnight that catches the light for the cameras, and the other was a black semi stretch, although I can recall some wrinkles,” she adds with a laugh.

Newmar put in a few alterations herself.

“I put the gold belt around the hips,” she says, “because at the waist it enlarges the waist, and if you put it at the hips, it gives you that curvier look. That and the inside seams were sewn to my specifications.”

And it was a tall order. At 5’11”, “it’s a long way to the floor, let’s put it that way,” the actress says of her stance. “And then you put on heels and you get a little dizzy up here.”

Eddie Cantor called hers “the most beautiful legs in the Follies” when the dancer began her career in the Ziegfeld Follies.

By the mid-1960s, Newmar was already known for some sultry roles on stage, from one of the brides in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and as Stupefyin’ Jones in Li’l Abner on stage and screen. 

She made her mark on TV as “The Living Doll” in 1964 and ’65.

Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) debuted in the campy T.V. series on January 12, 1966. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

“It was the difficult part of a robot,” Newmar says. “It was a golden opportunity for an actress to do so much. I danced ballet, I played the piano, I was a crack pool artist; whatever they could write for me, I had the opportunity to do. So I think the greater the challenge, the more, at least looking back on it, that we say we love that part most. “

But she’s known by far the best for her role as Catwoman. “I’ve been told many times it was my brother who induced me to take on this part, since I was living in New York,” Newmar says. “He came over to visit with five or six his Harvard friends and he overheard a phone call that I had gotten, producers asking me to fly out.

“I guess they had run out of actresses. At the last minute, on the weekend, I flew out; on a Monday, I got the script and the costume fitting. I think we were working by Wednesday. It was that quick. That’s how television works.”

The role itself wasn’t necessarily athletic. “ It was more slink around, you might say,” Newmar says.

But she certainly got to use her dance skills. 

“There was as much dance in that role as there was acting,” she says. “It was highly physicalized. And yet in a subtle way. You didn’t want to say, here’s the dancer. I think Yvonne Craig did that when she did her high kicks as Batgirl. But all that movement has to be true to character.”

Newmar says she was never particularly a fan of the Batman comic books (“I was a Brenda Starr fan”), but soon found herself tied to the role that was later played by Eartha Kitt in the third and final season of “Batman” and by Lee Meriwether in the 1966 Batman movie. 

“That is the memory that people attach to me, Catwoman,” Newmar says. “And it just keeps on growing.There’s something about this story in particular that all ages seem to hook into and identify with.”

“That is the memory that people attach to me, Catwoman,” Julie Newmar says. “And it just keeps on growing.There’s something about this story in particular that all ages seem to hook into and identify with.” (Courtesy Harlan Boll)

And while female superheroes are more common on television today, she was something of a groundbreaker in 1966. Indeed, there weren’t many women on TV at the time who were empowered as all. 

“Young girls will come up to me and say, ‘Oh, your character gave me hope in life that I could be a strong and forthright female.’ And that was a surprise to me,” Newmar says. “I think women have come forth to a great degree since then.”

For all the impact she may have made, she was only in six one-hour episodes of “Batman” all told. And she wasn’t in the third season at all. 

“It was quite costly,” Newmar says of the production of the show. “And they brought in “The Green Hornet,” thinking that would be a huge hit. They should have stuck with ‘Batman.’”

Others have gone on to play Catwoman in their own custom Catwoman suits. Michelle Pfeiffer took the role in the 1992 film Batman Returns. Halle Berry had the lead role in the 2004 movie Catwoman. Anne Hathaway had the role in the 2012 The Dark Knight Rises and currently Camren Bicondova plays an early version of Catwoman on the Fox television series “Gotham.”

“It’s a marvelous role,” Newmar says. “There would be many women to play that role, and each of them will give the role something inimitable and marvelous and new. It’s just like ‘Aida’ or ‘Carmen’ or one of the great opera roles. There will be many interpretations.”

The jumpsuit was donated in 2008 by alongside eight other gifts that included Angela Lansbury’s costume from Mame, Carol Channing’s diamond dress from Lorelei, Tippi Hedren’s script for The Birds, Esther Williams’ scrapbooks, and awards won by Florence Henderson and June Lockhart.

According to Stacey Kluck, chair and curator in the museum’s division of culture and the arts, the Catwoman suit is not currently on display, it’s headed to the conservation lab to preserve it for the centuries to come. 

But Newmar may one day don a Catwoman costume once more, with talks of a 50th anniversary sequel featuring Batman and Catwoman. “But I’m not supposed to talk about it.”

UPDATE 1/12/2016: A previous version of this article inaccurately reported the number of seasons that the show appeared on television. "Batman" ran for three seasons from 1966 to 1968.

Alaska - Cultural Destinations

Smithsonian Magazine

Nearly 60 percent of visitors to Alaska see the state's Native culture: totem carving, Native dancing, the blanket toss, art and traditional music and museums. Whether travelers want to explore Alaska's vibrant Native culture or other artistic and intellectual attractions like music festivals, local artisan artwork, Russian iconography or museum exhibits, a long list of things to do and see await them.

Southeast Alaska Totem Poles, Chamber Music and Petroglyphs
In Southeast Alaska, cultural attractions abound. Sitka is home to Sitka National Historic Park, which houses an impressive collection of totem poles. Visitors to the park can wander forested trails while learning about stories the poles tell. Tour St. Michael's Cathedral, a bright blue, onion-domed Russian Orthodox Church that dominates Sitka's skyline. If visitors get their timing right, they can attend the Sitka Summer Music Festival. Held every year in June, it emphasizes chamber music and attracts an international group of professional musicians.

Working along the coast of the Inside Passage is the town of Wrangell. Wrangell holds the distinction of being the only Alaskan city to have existed under four nations and three flags—the Stikine Tlingits, the Russians, Great Britain and the United States. The Wrangell Museum features cultural exhibits, such as the oldest known Tlingit housepost in Southeast Alaska, a rare spruce canoe and spruce root and cedar bark basket collections. Wrangell is best known for its impressive collection of petroglyphs. The Alaska State Park at Petroglyph Beach features a newly constructed, fully accessible wooden boardwalk where guests can make rubbings from reproduced petroglyphs.

In Ketchikan, the cultural traveler can find authentic totem poles. The Totem Heritage Center houses 33 totems and fragments retrieved from deserted Tlingit and Haida Indian villages. In fact, this national landmark houses the largest collection of original totems in the United States. Saxman Totem Park houses totems as well, but includes carving demonstrations and performances by the Cape Fox Dancers at the Beaver Tribal House. Galleries galore are found on Ketchikan's bustling waterfront. The Blueberry Arts Festival, held annually in August, features arts and crafts, performing arts, a juried art show and other fun activities.

Haines, meanwhile, has a rich tradition of Tlingit culture. The area was originally named Deishu, meaning beginning of the trail. The local Native community of Klukwan is considered to be the mother village and the cradle of the Tlingit people.

In Haines, visitors can experience Native heritage in many ways. Known as an artists' haven, there are numerous art galleries. There, visitors can find beautiful pieces of Native artwork, from intricately carved jewelry to limited edition prints, hand-carved masks and basketry. The Sheldon Museum has an impressive collection of Chilkat Blankets and is a wealth of information for those interested in the history of the local Chilkat and Chilkoot tribes.

Local Native-owned businesses offer custom tours through the Chilkat Valley and into the Village of Klukwan, as well as daily catamaran service to Skagway. Alaska Indian Arts, located in historic Fort Seward, is a world-renowned center for totem carving and other Native arts. Open to the public and free of charge, visitors can enjoy watching master carvers at work while learning a little bit about the traditions of the Tlingit people. Nearby is the Totem Village, with a collection of totems surrounding a Tlingit Tribal House. This is where the Chilkat Dancers Storytelling Theatre performs contemporary interpretations of traditional Native legends. The show is performed most evenings throughout the summer and is a "must see."

Juneau also is rich in Tlingit culture, specifically art—totem poles, carvings, weaving, jewelry and demonstrations. Many of Juneau's public and private business and buildings are decorated with Tlingit art, and the local Native corporation owns and operates visitor attractions and activities in Juneau as well as Glacier Bay National Park and Glacier Bay Cruise line. At the Mt. Roberts Tram, also Native-owned, visitors can view the award-winning film "Seeing Daylight," a celebration of Tlingit culture and history. The Alaska State Museum has on display not only many artifacts of the local Native culture, but also of the Native culture of the entire state.

Southcentral Alaska Home to Alaska Native Heritage Center
Alaska's south-central region, encompassing Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, features some of the best the state has to offer for cultural travelers. Anchorage is home to the impressive Alaska Native Heritage Center, a unique cultural site dedicated to educating visitors about Alaska Native groups. The Center presents programs in academic and informal settings, including workshops, demonstrations and guided tours of indoor exhibits and outdoor village sites.

After visiting Anchorage, cultural travelers may want to rent a car and drive south on the Seward Highway to the Kenai Peninsula. The Seward Highway was named an All-American Road in 2000 and boasts some of the country's most spectacular scenery. A stop in hip and funky Girdwood is a must on this road trip. Located at the base of Mount Alyeska, the ski town is home to a group of artists who like the small-town feel of the place. Visitors can visit any number of small, unique galleries year-round or time their visit to coincide with the Girdwood Forest Fair, a midsummer arts and crafts event.

Continuing down the Seward Highway, visitors will eventually find themselves on the Kenai Peninsula. The Kenai area's growing reputation as a place of creative expression is well deserved as it develops visitor-friendly sites and centers. The Kenai Fine Arts Center, located in Old Town Kenai, provides studio space for members of the Peninsula Art Guild and the Kenai Potters Guild. The guilds host monthly art exhibitions, maintain an artist sales gallery and offer a variety of art workshops for adults and children. The region is also rich in Gold Rush history. Visitors can raft down Sixmile Creek and see evidence of mining operations from days past.

Upon reaching the end of the road in Homer, visitors will arrive in a cultural mecca of sorts. The tight-knit, artsy community of Homer prides itself on its beatnik image. Galleries and small artisan shops can be found everywhere in this oceanfront community.

Interior Alaska Home to an Amazing Museum
Heading north from Southcentral Alaska is the Interior, a region rich with culture. Fairbanks is the hub of Interior Alaska and home to The University of Alaska Museum. The museum is the state's primary repository of natural and cultural history and is internationally recognized for its comprehensive northern collections.

Alaska's Far North A Culture Tied to the Land and its Resources
The Far North region of Alaska encompasses the communities of Nome, Kotzebue and Barrow. North of the Arctic Circle, these towns offer cultural attractions that are closely tied to the rich Native heritage of the area. Nome has a special combination of traditional Eskimo culture and a gold rush past. Travelers may want to rent a car and tour the 300-plus miles of road system surrounding Nome. Nome also marks the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the longest such race in the world. The town of 4,000 swells to many times that size every March with the arrival of the much-anticipated race finish.

Located on a three-mile spit of land on the Chukchi Sea, Kotzebue has much to offer cultural travelers. Among its attractions is the NANA Museum of the Arctic, local history and cultural films at the park service and the Senior Center Cultural Center.

Barrow is located at the tip of the Far North region, situated on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. A walking tour of the town includes a visit to the Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Station, built in 1893. This is the oldest frame building in the Arctic. Also, visitors can see the Birnirk archaeological site, a group of 16 dwelling mounds representing the Birnirk culture (A.D. 500-900). Guests can witness the unique whaling culture of the Eskimos every spring when the annual bowhead whale hunt and festival gets underway.

Southwest Alaska Rich in History, Diversity
Alaska's expansive Southwest region is home to the communities of Bethel, King Salmon, Unalaska, Dillingham, Kodiak and the Pribilof Islands. The area is as diverse as it is big. Unalaska, located on the Aleutian Island chain, is home to Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Ascension and the Bishop's House. The church hosts one of the largest collections of religious artifacts and icons in the United States.

Kodiak Island, known primarily for its mammoth brown bears, boasts many cultural attractions in addition to housing one of the world's most legendary mammals. The Baranov Museum, a warehouse built in the 1790s by Alexander Baranof to store furs, is the oldest remaining Russian structure in the state. Kodiak is also rich with Alaska Native culture. The Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository reveal 8,000 years of Alutiiq history through artifacts and archeological digs. A new archaeological excavation gets underway every summer and volunteers are invited to participate.

Culture in Alaska is vast and varied as the land itself. The true cultural traveler could spend a lifetime in the state and never experience it all.

Five Baby Squirrels Saved From Truly Knotty Predicament

Smithsonian Magazine

A squirrel’s most iconic feature—its luxuriant, bushy tail—isn’t just for show. The furry appendage keeps the arboreal rodent balanced while running along tree branches or power lines and serves as a nice portable snuggle shelter when the temperature drops. But for five young eastern gray squirrels in Wisconsin, their tails became death traps when they got tangled and entwined with strands of grass and plastic, reports The Guardian.

According to a Facebook post, the squirrel siblings were brought into the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at the Wisconsin Humane Society in Milwaukee after someone found the struggling animals bound together. The Center believes that the squirrels got helplessly tangled because of the long grass and strips of plastic their mother used to build their squirrel nest.

“You can imagine how wiggly and unruly (and nippy!) this frightened, distressed ball of squirrelly energy was, so our first step was to anesthetize all five of them at the same time,” the wildlife center writes.

They then set to work on the impossible task unraveling the “Gordian knot” of squirrel tails, carefully snipping tangled fur away from weedy grasses and plastic bits that their mother used the make her nest. The tail detangling operation took about 20 minutes. All of the squirrels had some degree of tissue damage from the entwinement, and while three of the siblings came away with relatively luscious tails, the other two will look a little ratty for a while.

(Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at Wisconsin Humane Society)

In an update, the wildlife center says that a few days after the procedure all the squirrels seem alert and lively, and they’re happily eating nuts, seeds and fruit. The wildlife center plans to hold them a little while longer to make sure there is no necrosis, or permanent tissue damage, to their tails before releasing them into the wild.

“We can only imagine how relieved they must feel to be free of one another, and move independently. They are thrilled to be able to climb and jump, which juvenile squirrels need for proper development at their age,” they write.

There’s little doubt that the squirrel twirl was a potentially fatal bind. “If they had been left alone, they would have died,” Angela Speed, vice president of communications for the Wisconsin Humane Society tells Emily Lipstein at Gizmodo.

The phenomenon is similar to a semi-mythological phenomenon called a “rat king,” in which a nest of rats gets their tails tangled creating a writhing, snarling wheel of rodents. While a rat king has never been documented in the modern age, it turns out “squirrel kings” are uncommon but not unheard of. “[One of our volunteers] has seen this before, but we’ve never had five tangled like this,” Speed tells Lipstein.

Earlier this year, a homeowner in Elkhorn, Nebraska, found a knot of six baby fox squirrels with their tails snarled together because of tree sap. Those poor dears were anesthetized and untangled by Nebraska Wildlife Rehab during an hour-long process. In May 2017, a clot of four baby squirrels was also discovered in Maine and in 2013 six squirrels in Regina, Saskatchewan, were also saved from the same sappy predicament.

2 World Trade Center and the Promise of Green Skyscrapers

Smithsonian Magazine

The architecture world has been buzzing about the newly unveiled renderings for 2 World Trade Center, the skyscraper that will complete the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. Danish architecture firm BIG, led by starchitect Bjarke Ingels, plans to build the 1,340-foot tower as seven separate stacked boxes. The bottom of the building is slated to become the headquarters for Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox and News Corp, while the upper floors will be leased to various tenants.

The renderings, first revealed in Wired magazine, include plenty of attention-grabbing features: an indoor basketball court, a running track, a penthouse screening room. But the most noteworthy, perhaps, are the tiered green courtyards. Each box of the tower is smaller than the one beneath, lending a stair step appearance to the building. On each “step,” BIG intends to create a green plaza of grass and trees. Each plaza will represent a different biozone, ranging from tropical to arctic, though the plans are still very much in the conceptual stage.  If completed according to plan, it will be New York’s—and likely America’s—most noteworthy “green” building.

As evidence about the importance of green space to human flourishing mounts—studies have shown proximity to greenery improves both physical and mental health—incorporating parks and other green space into building design has become one of the hottest trends in architecture.

BIG has worked on other green-topped buildings. In Taiwan, the under-construction Hualien Resort and Residences rooflines follow the silhouettes of nearby mountains, topped with a strip of greenery. Plans for an energy company’s double tower headquarters in the Chinese megacity of Shenzhen show green roofs and interior green spaces.

Several other noteworthy buildings incorporating sky gardens have opened recently. In Milan, the Bosco Verticale (“vertical forest”), a pair of residential towers in the city’s Porta Nuova district, opened their doors last fall. Designed by Italian architect Stefano Boeri, the buildings incorporate some 800 trees and thousands of plants on concrete balconies, creating private gardens for residents. The trees, watered by recycled graywater, are meant to reduce energy costs by providing a natural barrier to harsh sunlight. The buildings won the 2014 International Highrise Award, a prestigious architecture prize.

Malaysian architect Ken Yeang has several high-profile green towers, including Singapore’s 15-story Solaris Building, with a ribbon of greenery winding all the way to the top, as well as a roof garden and green terraces.

In Shenzhen, French architecture firm Vincent Callebaut has proposed a series of “farmscrapers”—Jetsonian towers of egg-shaped pods incorporating both living space and food-producing green space into each level of the building. The vastly ambitious plans include fruit trees, grape arbors and veggie beds. Grasses would help act as natural filters for the towers' graywater. The buildings have yet to get beyond the conceptual stage; a number of other proposed green skyscrapers in China haven't progressed either.

Image by Stefano Boeri. Bosco Verticale (original image)

Image by Corbis. London's 20 Fenchurch Street skyscraper (original image)

Pulling off sky gardens is difficult. It's easy to put trees and shrubs in an architectural rendering, but financial and logistical concerns frequently get in the way of turning them into actual living gardens.  

A few years ago, writer Tim De Chant begged architects to stop putting trees in skyscraper renderings. The problem, De Chant said, is trees don’t easily grow on skyscrapers due to weather extremes. He’d seen “one too many sketches of a verdant vertical oasis but too few of them actually built.”

London’s 20 Fenchurch Street skyscraper (dubbed the “Walkie-Talkie” for its bulbous, top-heavy shape) was in the news recently as an example of a green building that failed to live up to its renderings. The building’s developers had promised a top-floor sky garden open to the public, billing it as “the UK’s tallest public park.” Indeed, including a park in the plans was part of what allowed the building to be built at the edge of a conservation area. But when the garden opened earlier this year, critics lambasted the space as looking like an airport terminal or a hotel lobby, with a few plant beds surrounding restaurants and bars. Even more galling to detractors, the “public” park is only open to the public by booking three days in advance, only for groups smaller than six, and only before 6 p.m. In the evening, it’s only open to patrons of the floor’s restaurants and bars.

"If people [are] expecting to visit it as an alternative to Kew, then they will be disappointed," said the City of London’s former chief planner Peter Rees, quoted in the BBC.

Ingels could face more problems than just pure logistics in turning his renderings into reality. The previous design slated for the space, by venerable British architect Lord Norman Foster, was nixed, reportedly because Rupert Murdoch’s son and heir James thought it was too conventional for a media company headquarters. The new renderings may please the Murdochs, but whether the rest of New York is happy with the design will be another question. Other buildings that surround the plaza have had their ambitious designs slowly eroded by the drip drip of financial concerns, structural challenges and city regulations. The original plans for 1 World Trade Center included sky gardens above the 64th floor, but those visions gave way to the NYPD's demand for better bombproofing and other concerns. Over the many years from conception to construction, the wildly original design gave way to something much more conventional. 

Ingels will face demands from the public, who may be leery of a skyscraper on the Twin Towers site that appears to lean to the side, from city regulators and from his financial backers. Only then will the task of attempting to make the sky gardens a reality begin.

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