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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

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Why Geologists Think Glacial Mountains Look Like Sheep

Thank the French.

by Marnie Mcinnes

The similarity between glacially scoured rocks and sheep is even more intriguing if one interprets the expression roches moutonnées more broadly, as did the 19th-century French geologist Albert de Lapparent.

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How Wheelchair Accessibility Ramped Up

Ramps evolved from a Greek tool for dragging ships to the front lines of disability activism.

by Emily Nonko

“A lawsuit can take seven years to get one ramp in front of a building, one protest could result in a ramp there next week.”

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Troubled History of Horse Meat in America

The White House wants to reinstate the sale of horses for slaughter, but eating horse meat has always been politically treacherous.

by Susanna Forrest

In these narratives, horse meat is the food of poverty, war, social breakdown, and revolution.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Bathing in Controversy

For a century, school showers have anticipated the current debate about bathrooms.

by J. Y. Chua

Mandatory showers became problematic as the concept of “children’s rights” gained currency, eroding the legal and social authority of schools.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Device That Democratized the Foot Race

Thanks to starting blocks, races were no longer won by who could dig the best foothold.

by Janelle Peters

As a technology of fairness, the starting blocks helped turn foot racing into an ideal for egalitarian citizenship.

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The Medical Uses of Maggots

Fly larvae help scientists understand and treat diseases.

by Robin Tricoles

Maggots can help—in particular, the creation of a tiny maggot highway.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Does Electrifying Mosquitoes Protect People From Disease?

Maybe a little, but that’s not why bug zappers are so popular.

by Rebekah Kebede

Given their dubious effectiveness, mosquito zappers might be best understood as a dark form of insect-slaying entertainment.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Dangers of Reading in Bed

In 18th-century Europe, the practice was considered a menace to life and property, but mostly to morals.

by Nika Mavrody

Readers were urged not to tempt God by sporting with “the most awful danger and calamity”—the flagrant vice of bringing a book to bed.

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Why Fruit Has a Fake Wax Coating

For centuries, artificial protective coatings have preserved and protected foods—and made them look more appealing. An Object Lesson.

by Julia Phillips

If Eve found the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil “pleasing to the eye,” then the fruit on offer in today’s supermarkets would surely dazzle her.

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Have Leftovers Gone Bad?

As restaurants and meal kits displace home cooking, uneaten food might disappear. An Object Lesson.

by David Rudin

Soon enough, they might represent what home cooking once meant, but no longer does.

 

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Handbag’s Tale

Medieval or modern, handbags reveal their bearers’ secrets more than they hide them. An Object Lesson.

by Julie Schulte

From chatelaine to reticule to designer bag, the handbag has always offered both freedom and yoke. It encapsulates a fact about its owner, and reveals that fact as much as, or more than, it conceals her belongings.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Seductive Nostalgia of the Picnic

Once seen as an escape from the city, a meal among the trees and meadows is now a journey to the past. An Object Lesson.

by Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Once upon a time, every meal was a picnic. Then people got roofs and things.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

How the Diving Bell Opened the Ocean’s Depths

The simple device ushered in a new age of exploration—and burst many ear drums in the process. An Object Lesson.

by Bryce Emley

Once people realized that trapped air contains breathable oxygen, they took large pots, stuck their heads inside, and jumped into the nearest body of water. In the 2,500 years since, the device has been refined and expanded to allow better access to the ocean’s depths. But that access has not come without human cost.

Read this essay at The Atlantic