The Bootleg Video Vans of the Soviet Union

I learned English—and Western culture—watching American movies in smoky minibuses.

by Elmar Hashimov

In the U.S.S.R. of the 1980s, as Brezhnev’s stagnation mutated into Gorbachev’s perestroika, the Soviet people started peering out from behind the Iron Curtain at the tantalizing opulence of Western popular culture. It wasn’t unusual for a few government-approved (and heavily sanitized) Hollywood movies to show up in local theaters in Mother Russia and her 14 children-states.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Star of Norwegian Knitwear

The selburose design wasn’t invented in Norway, but it became a symbol of the country.

by Emma Sarappo

You’ve surely seen the selburose before: It’s knit into sweaters, featured on those mittens, seen at the Olympics, and printed on leggings and drink cozies. It’s shorthand for Scandinavia, if not Norway specifically, and feels at home on winter gear, especially our American faux-Christmas sweaters and earmuffs.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Fax Is Not Yet Obsolete

Law and medicine still rely on the device. Maybe they shouldn’t.

by Sophie Haigney

Faxing really took off in the ’80s, in offices around the world. It caused major changes in the speed of business transactions, allowing individuals and companies to disseminate materials quickly and broadly—someone in an office building in Japan could fire off a document to the United States instantly.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Problem With Feedback

Companies and apps constantly ask for ratings, but all that data may just be noise in the system.

by Megan Ward

The current mania for feedback can be traced to the machine that kick-started the Industrial Revolution, the steam governor. Revisiting that machine, and understanding feedback’s lost, mechanical origins, can help people better use, and refuse, its constant demands.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

When Pop-Up Books Taught Popular Science

Before they were relegated to the domain of children, books with movable mechanisms explained anatomy, astronomy, and more to adults.

by Kathleen Crowther

The charm and whimsy of pop-up books might seem far removed from the dry seriousness of technical literature. But during the first three centuries of printing, from about 1450 to 1750, most pop-ups appeared in scientific books.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

How Tea Helped Women Sell Suffrage

Private-labeled teas helped fund success during the suffragist movement. Today’s activists might learn from their model.

by Janelle Peters

When it came time for women to get the vote, tea played a role, too. Women such as the wealthy Alva Vanderbilt-Belmont held “suffrage teas,” where support for the cause was proclaimed. The tea parties also served as fund-raisers, a practice that extended to the teas themselves.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

When Televisions Were Radioactive

Anxieties about the effects of screens on human health are hardly new, but the way the public addresses the problems has changed.

by Susan Murray

Since the 1940s, there had been long-standing concerns about radiation leaks from black-and-white picture tubes. But it wasn’t until 1967, when routine testing revealed that specific large-screen models of GE color sets were emitting “X-radiation in excess of desirable levels,” that there seemed to be any real evidence of such a risk.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Throw Your Children’s Art Away

Childhood is short-lived. It’s okay if kids’ drawings are, too.

by Mary Townsend

From the earliest age, adults press crayons into their hands. Art offers kids something to do, and folk wisdom holds that it’s good for them, too. But after the activity is over, the artwork sticks around. And that’s where the problems start.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Mystery of Alexander Hamilton’s Bank Clock

The origins of an 18th-century timepiece are part of an American institution even older than its financial system: embellishing facts.

by Emily Ludolph

A legend grew around the clock. A subsequent director of the Historical Society referred to it as the Hamilton clock. The story emerged that Alexander Hamilton had gifted the clock personally to his financial brainchild, like a father bestowing a pocket watch to his firstborn. Whether he really did remains an unsolved mystery.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Writers Have Always Loved Mobile Devices

Writing boxes, popular from the 17th century, provided the same pleasure as today’s laptops and custom word processors: to make the experience of writing pleasurable, whether any actual writing gets done.

by Laura R. Micciche

Writing is a mobile art. People do it on laptops, tablets, and phones. They write—or type—while walking, waiting for a doctor appointment, commuting to work, eating dinner. Although writing’s mobility might seem a product of modern digital gadgetry, there’s nothing new about writing on the move. Digital tools are but the latest take on a long tradition of writing in transit.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Draconian Dictionary Is Back

Since the 1960s, the reference book has cataloged how people actually use language, not how they should. That might be changing.

by Rachel Paige King

In 1961, what newly published book was denounced as “subversive and intolerably offensive”? Was it the new American edition of Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller’s sexually explicit autobiographical novel? Nope. Although that book was called filthy, rotten, repulsive, and “an affront to human decency,” the correct answer is Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Microfilm Lasts Half a Millennium

Millions of publications—not to mention spy documents—can be read on microfilm machines. But people still see these devices as outmoded and unappealing.

by Craig Saper

I recently acquired a decommissioned microfilm reader. Machines like it played a central role in both research and secret-agent tasks of the last century. But this one had become an embarrassment. Unlike a computer—even an old one—it was heavy and ungainly. It would not fit into a car, and it could not be carried by two people for more than a few feet. Even moving the thing was an embarrassment. No one wanted it, but no one wanted me to have it around either.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Hot-Air Balloons Are Useless

When they were invented, the vessels promised to revolutionize travel and industry. But they soon settled into life as an entertaining diversion.

by Jason Pearl

Balloons have always moved minds better than they’ve moved bodies. The upward lift mimics the feeling of ideas drifting into the mind. The haphazard flight path suggests the possibility of being whisked to some faraway world—to Oz, for instance. But today, people are far less likely to have ridden in a balloon than to have read about one in fiction.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Raising the American Flag Made in China

Is the banner’s patriotism undermined when it’s manufactured abroad?

by Michael D. Breidenbach

Sales of American flag imports pale in comparison to America’s $375 billion trade deficit with China, but these Chinese imports are more politically potent than a line item on the Harmonized Tariff Schedule. Importing flags is not just a matter of economics and global trade. To its critics, it represents an economy, and a country, on the decline.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Why Do People Sign Yearbooks?

Commemorative class books evolved from practical notebooks into collections of hair clippings, rhyming couplets, and “have a great summer” wishes.

by Jennifer Billock

The practice had evolved from commonplace books, a Renaissance tradition of compiling important and memorable information into bound sheets of paper. Students were encouraged to keep the books during class, and eventually they became a place to store anything and everything their owners found interesting—including the signatures of other classmates.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Teaching Sobriety With ‘The Bottle’

Before and after Prohibition, temperance organizations turned the whiskey or beer vessel into a personification of American moral failure.

by Hannah C. Griggs

As the nation’s formerly dry stances on alcohol softened after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, the whiskey bottle became a powerful symbol and pedagogical tool for the staunchly anti-alcohol advocates of the temperance movement.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

How the 50-mm Lens Became ‘Normal’

It’s often called the optic that best approximates human vision, but approximation is relative.

by Allain Daigle

Today, the lens represents a struggle between objectivity and relativism. Metaphorically, people look through critical lenses, cultural lenses, political lenses, and historical lenses. We zoom in and out on things, we frame them, we change lenses, we focus. The metaphor highlights how people adopt multiple viewpoints that, in turn, change how they see and think about the world.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

98 Years of Mail Fraud

How the postal letter became a tool for ingenious criminality.

by Simon R. Gardner

It didn’t take long for criminals to realize that the rise of the postal service also created opportunity for exploitation. Crime could suddenly be carried out from afar, with relative anonymity.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Cupholders Are Everywhere

As people spent more and more time in cars, auto interiors transformed into living spaces, where food and drink became necessities.

by Nancy A. Nichols

Cupholders began as an afterthought, mere circular indents on the inside of the door of the glove compartment, but they have become an absolute necessity and a key feature that shoppers evaluate when purchasing a new car, even for a time supplanting fuel efficiency as a consumer’s most sought-after attribute.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

How Cycling Clothing Opened Doors for Women

Advances in biking gear had an impact on advances in gender equality.

by Christine Ro

Around the turn of the 20th century, cycling pants were a focus for anxieties and excitements about changing notions of acceptable femininity.

Read this essay at The Atlantic