The Accidental Poison That Founded the Modern FDA

Elixir Sulfanilamide was a breakthrough antibiotic—until it killed more than 100 people.

by Julian G. West

The FFDCA protected the public from unsafe medications, but its limitations quickly became apparent.

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Does ‘Counting Your Blessings’ Work?

Doing so has appealed to people for centuries, but the power of a gratitude list can be misused.

by Sonya Huber

As the gratitude trend spreads, the practice can feel compulsory.

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The Power Suit’s Subversive Legacy

Women have long borrowed from men’s dress to claim the authority associated with it. It hasn’t always worked.

by Angella D'Avignon

The term “working girl” is a double entendre. Used to describe women’s labor outside the home—whether that was sex work or desk work—the turn of phrase also connotes class.

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A Birth Certificate is a Person’s First Possession

Around the world, the document establishes legal, social, and economic legitimacy. But it also makes compromises.

by Christine Ro

Overall, legal changes relating to birth certificates show how quickly the law is catching up to social attitudes about sex and gender.

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How the Index Card Cataloged the World

Carl Linnaeus, the father of biological taxonomy, also had a hand in inventing this tool for categorizing anything.

by Daniela Blei

The act of organizing information—even notes about plants—is never neutral or objective.

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Dog Poo, an Environmental Tragedy

When industrial fertilizer replaced dung heaps, its spoils helped fund the spread of plastics.

by T. Hugh Crawford

Dog waste is now timeless.

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How a Glass Terrarium Changed the World

The Wardian case made intercontinental plant transport possible—and helped spread empires.

by Jen Maylack

The Wardian case emboldened European powers to continue global expansion.

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How Racial Data Gets ‘Cleaned’ in the U.S. Census

The national survey offers more identity choices than ever—until those choices get scrubbed away.

by Roby Autry

If racial data must be cleaned, then some data is dirty. And that dirtiness is undeniably political.

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The Saintliness of Undecayed Corpses

In the medieval church, “incorrupt” remains signaled virtue, chastity, and holiness.

by Katherine Harvey

If a corpse was found to have decayed, a cult’s potential would be seriously undermined.

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Your Bones Live On Without You

The human skeleton inspires wonder and terror because it lasts much longer than its owner.

by Chip Colwell

People around the world are distraught that their ancestors lie as specimens on museum shelves.

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The Underclass Origins of the Little Black Dress

The upper classes once imposed the fashion staple on their servants—then they stole it back from them

by Shelley Puhak

There was a “revolution in dress, not by the fashionable folk, but by New York’s army of shopgirls.”

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How to Escape a Death Spiral

The aviator’s hazard offers a lesson about responding to supposed crises.

by Toni Wall Jaudon

To tame the death spiral, devices had to become part of how aviators kept control of the plane.

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The Contentious Physics of Wiffle Ball

An engineer sheds light on the ball’s much-debated curve.

by Jenn Stroud Rossmann

Wiffle balls wouldn’t be possible without the ubiquity of plastic.

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Oil Barrels Aren’t Real Anymore

Once a cask that held crude, the oil barrel is now mostly an economic concept.

by Brian Jacobson

The oil barrel tells a story of struggle between what industries need and what they want.

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The Thunderstorm Whisperers

For centuries, lightning rods have tamed the heavens, more or less unchanged.

by Robin Tricoles

You can’t be afraid of heights in our business.

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The Lost Origins of Playing-Card Symbols

Cards have been used for gambling, divination, and even commerce. But where did their “pips” come from?

by Adrienne Bernhard

These graphic tablets aren’t just toys, or tools. They are cultural imprints that reveal popular custom.

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Why It’s Better to Carry Weight on Your Head

People have done it for centuries. Maybe everyone still should.

by Pippa Biddle

Looking for the inventor of head-carry devices and techniques is like asking who invented shoes.

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The Moral History of Air-Conditioning

Cooling the air was once seen as sinful. Maybe the idea wasn’t entirely wrong.

by Shane Cashman

Commercial buildings used more than 500 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity for air-conditioning in 2015 alone.

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The Hair Dryer, Freedom’s Appliance

For a century, the device has promised more than dry hair.

by Maria Teresa Hart

Though many of Dyson’s changes are more aesthetic than functional, this is a market where looks matter.

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Pictures of Death

When photography was new, it was often used to preserve corpses via their images.

by Nancy West

This slide into sentimentality, even if grotesque, coincides with a profound shift in Western attitudes toward death.

Read this essay at The Atlantic