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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.”

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

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