A Digital Archive of Soviet Children’s Books Goes Online: Browse the Artistic, Ideological Collection (1917-1953)

At both a geographical and historical distance, the Soviet Union doesn't look like much of a place for kids. If you grew up during the Cold War in, say, the United States, you might well have the impression (of which The Simpsons' "Worker and Parasite" remains the defining crystallization) of a gray, harshly utilitarian land behind the Iron Curtain concerned with nothing more whimsical than bread lines and production quotas. But if you grew up in the Soviet Union, at least at one of the right times and in one of the right places, you might feel a now much-discussed nostalgia, not for the economic difficulties of your Soviet childhood, but for the sensibilities of the vanished society you grew up in. An online interactive database called Playing Soviet: The Visual Languages of Early Soviet Children’s Books, 1917-1953 provides a kid's-eye view into the early decades of that society.

A project of the Cotsen Collection at Princeton’s Firestone Library, the archive contains a variety of fully digitized children's books that show one venue in which, amid these years of "Russia’s accelerated violent political, social and cultural evolution," in the words of the database's front page, certain kinds of graphic art could flourish. "The illustration and look of Soviet children’s books was of tantamount importance as a vehicle for practical and concrete information in the new Soviet regime."




This ambitious effort, driven by "directives for a new kind of children’s literature" to be "founded on the assumption that the 'language of images' was immediately comprehensible to the mass reader, far more so than the typed word," brought in a great many artists and designers such as Alexander Deineka, El Lissitzky, and Vladimir Lebedev, tasking them all with creating "imaginative models for Soviet youth in the new languages of Soviet modernism."

Mental Floss' Shaunacy Ferro notes how many of the books "were designed to indoctrinate children into the world of the 'right' way to think about Soviet culture and history," pointing to a volume called How the Revolution Was Victorious, which meant “to ensure the correct interpretation of the anti-governmental coup among the young generation of new Soviet readership.” Some of the other reading material that resulted, like 1930's industrially focused What Are We Building? or the slightly earlier How Senka Ezhik Made a Knife, wears its instructional value on its sleeve (or rather, its cover). Others, like 1925's The Little Octobrist Rascal or that same year's China-set A Cup of Tea, offer higher doses of playfulness mixed in with the ideology.

Playing Soviet also includes the work of Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose Whom Should I Be?, a representative book from the "golden age" of Soviet Children's literature, we featured here on Open Culture earlier this year. Russia Beyond the Headlines' Alexandra Gueza highlights Mayakovsky's  What is Good and What is Bad? ("in which he explains that walking in the rain and thunderstorms is bad, cleaning your teeth is good, fighting with the boys is bad, while studying is good") and October 1917-1918: Heroes and Victims of the Revolution, whose "good guys" include "a worker, a Red Army soldier, a sailor, a seamstress” and whose "bad guys" include "a factory owner, a landowner, a rich farmer, a priest, a merchant." Goodnight Moon it certainly isn't, but then, how many American children's books had to attempt a fundamental reinvention of society?

via Hyperallergic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Frederick Douglass’s Fiery 1852 Speech, “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro,” Read by James Earl Jones

Every year on this day, Frederick Douglass’s fiery, uncompromising 1852 speech, “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro,” gets a new hearing, and takes on added resonance in the context of contemporary politics. It has never ceased to speak directly to those for whom the celebrations can seem like a hollow mockery of freedom and independence. The American holiday commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence—next to the Constitution, the U.S.A.’s most cherished founding document, and a text, for all its rhetorical elegance, which cannot escape the irony that it was written by a slaveholder for an emerging slave nation.

Slavery had always been a contentious subject among the colonists. And yet the American Revolution was a war waged for the full freedom and enfranchisement of only a very few white men of property. Not only were black people excluded from the nation’s freedoms, but so too were conquered Native American nations, and in great part, poor white men and women who could not vote—though they were not chained in perpetual servitude as human chattel, with little hope of liberty for themselves or their descendants.




Douglass gave the speech in Rochester, NY, seventy-six years after the first July 4th and at a time when the country was riven with irreconcilable tensions between abolitionists, free-soilers, and the slaveholding South. The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act—at least, in hindsight—made the impending Civil War all but inevitable. The speech reveals the celebration as a sham for those who were or had been enslaved, and who could not consider themselves American citizens regardless of their status (as Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney would affirm five years later.)

Just above, you can hear a powerful reading of Douglass’s speech by James Earl Jones, delivered as part of Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Read an excerpt of the speech below.

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.

Douglass’s speech condemned the “scorching irony” of American independence even after the Civil War, as racist terrorism and Jim Crow destroyed the promise of Reconstruction. In our present time, writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor Isabel Wilkerson, amidst the rash of high profile police killings and an ensuing lack of justice, events “have forced us to confront our place in a country where we were enslaved for far longer than we have been free. Forced us to face the dispiriting erosion that we have witnessed in recent years—from the birther assaults on a sitting black president to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act that we had believed was carved in granite.” We might add to this list the resumption of the failed "War on Drugs" and the federal government's announcements that it would do little to safeguard civil rights nor to investigate and prosecute the surge of white supremacist violence.

And yet the "self evident" mythology of American freedom and equality—and of American innocence—remains potent and seductive to many people in the country. As the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute put it a few days ago, “The birth of the United States was unique because it was a nation founded not on blood or ethnicity, but on ideas.” To this ahistorical fiction, which manages to erase the founders' own statements on race, the colonization of indigenous lands, and even the bloody Revolutionary War in its strangely desperate zeal to sweep the past away, Douglass would reply: “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

Hear other readings of the speech by Morgan Freeman, here, and by Danny Glover, here.

via Boing Boing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Ada Lovelace, Daughter of Lord Byron, Wrote the First Computer Program in 1842–a Century Before the First Computer

I’ve never quite understood why the phrase “revisionist history” became purely pejorative. Of course, it has its Orwellian dark side, but all knowledge has to be revised periodically, as we acquire new information and, ideally, discard old prejudices and narrow frames of reference. A failure to do so seems fundamentally regressive, not only in political terms, but also in terms of how we value accurate, interesting, and engaged scholarship. Such research has recently brought us fascinating stories about previously marginalized people who made significant contributions to scientific discovery, such as NASA's “human computers,” portrayed in the book Hidden Figures, then dramatized in the film of the same name.

Likewise, the many women who worked at Bletchley Park during World War II—helping to decipher encryptions like the Nazi Enigma Code (out of nearly 10,000 codebreakers, about 75% were women)—have recently been getting their historical due, thanks to “revisionist” researchers. And, as we noted in a recent post, we might not know much, if anything, about silent film star Hedy Lamarr’s significant contributions to wireless, GPS, and Bluetooth technology were it not for the work of historians like Richard Rhodes. These few examples, among many, show us a fuller, more accurate, and more interesting view of the history of science and technology, and they inspire women and girls who want to enter the field, yet have grown up with few role models to encourage them.




We can add to the pantheon of great women in science the name Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, the daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron. Lovelace has been renowned, as Hank Green tells us in the video at the top of the post, for writing the first computer program, “despite living a century before the invention of the modern computer.” This picture of Lovelace has been a controversial one. “Historians disagree,” writes prodigious mathematician Stephen Wolfram. “To some she is a great hero in the history of computing; to others an overestimated minor figure.”

Wolfram spent some time with “many original documents” to untangle the mystery. “I feel like I’ve finally gotten to know Ada Lovelace,” he writes, “and gotten a grasp on her story. In some ways it’s an ennobling and inspiring story; in some ways it’s frustrating and tragic.” Educated in math and music by her mother, Anne Isabelle Milbanke, Lovelace became acquainted with mathematics professor Charles Babbage, the inventor of a calculating machine called the Difference Engine, “a 2-foot-high hand-cranked contraption with 2000 brass parts.” Babbage encouraged her to pursue her interests in mathematics, and she did so throughout her life.

Widely acknowledged as one of the forefathers of computing, Babbage eventually corresponded with Lovelace on the creation of another machine, the Analytical Engine, which “supported a whole list of possible kinds of operations, that could in effect be done in arbitrarily programmed sequence.” When, in 1842, Italian mathematician Louis Menebrea published a paper in French on the Analytical Engine, “Babbage enlisted Ada as translator,” notes the San Diego Supercomputer Center's Women in Science project. “During a nine-month period in 1842-43, she worked feverishly on the article and a set of Notes she appended to it. These are the source of her enduring fame.” (You can read her translation and notes here.)

In the course of his research, Wolfram pored over Babbage and Lovelace’s correspondence about the translation, which reads “a lot like emails about a project might today, apart from being in Victorian English.” Although she built on Babbage and Menebrea’s work, “She was clearly in charge” of successfully extrapolating the possibilities of the Analytical Engine, but she felt “she was first and foremost explaining Babbage’s work, so wanted to check things with him.” Her additions to the work were very well-received—Michael Faraday called her “the rising star of Science”—and when her notes were published, Babbage wrote, “you should have written an original paper.”

Unfortunately, as a woman, “she couldn’t get access to the Royal Society’s library in London,” and her ambitions were derailed by a severe health crisis. Lovelace died of cancer at the age of 37, and for some time, her work sank into semi-obscurity. Though some historians have  seen her as simply an expositor of Babbage’s work, Wolfram concludes that it was Ada who had the idea of “what the Analytical Engine should be capable of.” Her notes suggested possibilities Babbage had never dreamed. As the Women in Science project puts it, "She rightly saw [the Analytical Engine] as what we would call a general-purpose computer. It was suited for 'developping [sic] and tabulating any function whatever. . . the engine [is] the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity.' Her Notes anticipate future developments, including computer-generated music."

In a recent episode of the BBC’s In Our Time, above, you can hear host Melvyn Bragg discuss Lovelace’s importance with historians and scholars Patricia Fara, Doron Swade, and John Fuegi. And be sure to read Wolfram’s biographical and historical account of Lovelace here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Browse a Collection of Over 83,500 Vintage Sewing Patterns

My costume design professor at Northwestern University, Virgil Johnson, delighted students with his formula for period clothing. I have forgotten some of the mathematic and semantic particulars—does dressing someone five years behind the times a “frumpy” character make? Or is it merely one?

I do recall some anxious hours, preparing for the school’s main stage production of the incestuous Jacobean revenge tragedy, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. The societal corruption of the play was underscored by having the supporting characters slouch around, snorting mimed cocaine in cutting edge, mid-80s Vogue Patterns … those big unstructured jackets were very a la mode, but they gobbled up a lot of high-budget fabric, and I didn’t want to be the one to make a costly sewing mistake.

What sticks in my mind most clearly is that 20 years was the sweet spot, the appropriate amount of elapsed time to ensure that one would not appear dumpy, dowdy, or oblivious, but rather prudent and discerning. Donning a garment that was 15 years out of fashion might be daringly “retro,” but another five and that same garment could be heralded as “vintage.”

The collaborative Vintage Pattern Wiki puts the magic number at 25, requesting that contributors make sure the patterns they post are from 1992 or earlier, and also out-of-print.

The browsable collection of over 83,500 patterns runs the gamut from Dynasty-inspired pussy bow power suits to Betty Draper-esque frocks featuring models in white gloves to an 1895 boys' Reefer Suit with fly-free short trousers.

Visitors can narrow their search to focus on a particular garment, designer or decade. If you click these links, you can see patterns from the following decades: 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s1970s, and 1980s.

The movie star collection is particularly fun. (Flattering or no, I’ve always wanted a pair of Katharine Hepburn pants…)

And it goes without saying that the dog days of summer are the perfect time to get a jump on your Halloween costume.

Those who are itching to get sewing should check the links below each pattern envelope cover for vendors who have the pattern in stock and photos and posts by community members who have made that same garment.

The prices and handwritten jottings of the original owners will also put you in a vintage mood.

The hunt starts here.

via Metafilter

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Female Pioneers of the Bauhaus Art Movement: Discover Gertrud Arndt, Marianne Brandt, Anni Albers & Other Forgotten Innovators

You'd be forgiven for assuming that the Bauhaus, the modern art and design movement that emerged from the eponymous German art school in the 1920s and 30s, didn't involve many women. Perhaps the famous near-industrial austerity of its aesthetic, especially at large scales, has stereotypical associations with maleness, but also, Bauhaus' most oft-referenced leading lights — Paul Klee, Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlemmer — all happened to be men. But if we seek out the women of the Bauhaus, what can we learn?

"When it opened, the Bauhaus school declared itself progressive and modern and advocated equality for the sexes, which was rare at the time," says Evelyn Adams in her short video on the Women of the Bauhaus above. "Value was placed on skill rather than gender. Classes weren't segregated, and women were free to select whichever subjects they wanted."




This had an understandable appeal, and in the school's first year more women applied than men. But alas, "in reality, despite having radical aspirations, the men in charge of the school represented the societal attitudes of the time. If everyone was welcomed as equals, then why did none of the women reach the same level of recognition as Paul Klee or Wassily Kandinsky?"

The story of Gertrud Arndt, one of whose self-portraits appears above and one of whose textiles appears below that, sheds some light on the answer. "She must have felt so optimistic," writes the New York Times' Alice Rawsthorn, when she arrived at the Bauhaus school of art and design in 1923 as "a gifted, spirited 20-year-old who had won a scholarship to pay for her studies. Having spent several years working as an apprentice to a firm of architects, she had set her heart on studying architecture." But because of a "long-running battle between its founding director, the architect Walter Gropius, and one of its most charismatic teachers, Johannes Itten, who wanted to use the school as a vehicle for his quasi-spiritual approach to art and design," the Bauhaus' house, as it were, had fallen out of order.

Alas, "Arndt was told that there was no architecture course for her to join and was dispatched to the weaving workshop." In recent years, the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin has put on shows to honor female Bauhausers like Ardnt, textile designer Benita Koch-Otte, and theater designer, illustrator, and color theorist Lou Scheper-Berkenkamp. "The situation improved after Gropius succeeded in ousting Itten in 1923," writes Rawsthorn, hiring Moholy-Nagy in Itten's place. "Having ensured that female students were given greater freedom, Moholy encouraged one of them, Marianne Brandt, to join the metal workshop. She was to become one of Germany’s foremost industrial designers during the 1930s," and her 1924 tea infuser and strainer appears just above.

Artsy's Alexxa Gotthardt has the stories of more women of the Bauhaus, including Anni Albers, whose 1947 Knot 2 appears just above. Her other work includes "a cotton and cellophane curtain that simultaneously absorbed sound and reflected light" and tapestries that "would go on to have a considerable impact on the development of geometric abstraction in the visual arts." Alma Siedhoff-Buscher, writes Gotthardt, dared "to switch from the weaving workshop to the male-dominated wood-sculpture department," where she invented a "small ship-building game," pictured below and still in production today, that "manifested Bauhaus’s central tenets: its 22 blocks, forged in primary colors, could be constructed into the shape of a boat, but could also be rearranged to allow for creative experimentation."

Bauhaus art and design took criticism in its heyday, as it still takes criticism now, for a certain coldness and sterility — or at least the work of the men of the Bauhaus does. But the more we discover about the lesser-known women of the Bauhaus, the more we see how they managed to bring no small degree of humanity to its artistic fruits, even to those of its most rigorous branches. "There is no difference between the beautiful sex and the strong sex," Gropius once insisted in a somewhat self-defeating pronouncement, but the differences between the male and female Bauhausers — in their personalities as well as in their work — make the movement look all the richer in retrospect.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Cartoon Characters Wear Gloves: A Curious Trip Through the History of Animation

It’s rare for Disney to overlook a marketing opportunity. For years, Mouse Ears were the film studio’s theme park souvenir of choice, but recently the gift shops have started stocking white four-fingered gloves too.

Perhaps not the most sensible choice for dipping into a bucket of jalapeño poppers or a $6 Mickey Pretzel with Cheese Sauce, but the gloves have undeniable reach when it comes to cartoon history. Bugs Bunny wears them. So does Woody Woodpecker, Tom (though not Jerry), and Betty Boop's anthropomorphic doggie pal, Bimbo.

As Vox’s Estelle Caswell points out above, the choice to glove Mickey and his early 20th-century cartoon brethren was born of practicality. The limited palette of black and white animation meant that most animal characters had black bodies—their arms disappeared against every inky expanse.




It also provided artists with a bit of relief, back when animation meant endless hours of labor over hand drawn cells. Puffy gloves aren’t just a comical capper to bendy rubber hose limbs. They’re also way easier to draw than realistic phalanges.

As Walt Disney himself explained:

We didn't want him to have mouse hands, because he was supposed to be more human. So we gave him gloves. Five Fingers looked like too much on such a little figure, so we took one away. That was just one less finger to animate.

Caswell digs deeper than that, unearthing a surprising cultural comparison. White gloves were a standard part of blackface performers’ minstrel show costumes. Audiences who packed theaters for touring minstrel shows were the same people lining up for Steamboat Willie.

Comic animation has evolved both visually and in terms of content over its near hundred year history, but animators have a tendency to revere the history of their profession.

Thusly do South Park's animators bestow spotless white gloves upon Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo.

"America's favorite cat and mouse team," the Simpsons'  Itchy and Scratchy, mete out their horrifically violent punishment in pristine white gloves.

Clearly some things are worth preserving…

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine, appearing onstage in New York City through June 26 in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

2,000-Year-Old Manuscript of the Ten Commandments Gets Digitized: See/Download “Nash Papyrus” in High Resolution

How old is the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible? As with most such questions about disputed religious texts, it depends on whom you ask. Many conservative Jewish and Christian scholars—or “maximalists”—have long accepted the text as containing genuine historical records, and dated them as early as possible. Modern critical scholars, the “minimalists,” informed by archeology, have made strong empirical cases against historicity, and date the texts much later.

These debates can become highly speculative the further back scholars attempt to push the Biblical origins. One has to take certain claims on faith. As far as the textual evidence goes, the earliest complete manuscripts we have are the so-called “Masoretic Text,” copied, edited, and disseminated between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. But we have fragments that date back over two thousand years, discovered in the Qumran Caves among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-twentieth century. Prior to their discovery, the oldest known fragment was known as the “Nash Papyrus,” which dates from the second century, BCE.




Purchased from an Egyptian antiquities dealer in 1902 by Egyptologist Dr. Walter Llewllyn Nash and donated to the Cambridge University Library the following year, the papyrus contains a composite of the two different versions of the Ten Commandments, from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, and the Shema, a prayer from Deuteronomy 6. In 2012, the Nash Papyrus was digitized, “one of the latest treasures of humanity,” reported Reuters, “to join Isaac Newton’s notebooks, the Nuremberg Chronicle and other rare texts as part of the Cambridge Digital Library.”

“It has been suggested,” notes the Cambridge description of the ancient manuscript, “that it is, in fact, from a phylactery (tefillin, used in daily prayer).” But the papyrus’ actual origins are uncertain, though it “was said to have come from the Fayyum,” a city near Cairo. And while the Nash Papyrus may not resolve any debates about the Torah’s origins, its open accessibility is a boon for scholars grappling with the questions. As university librarian Anne Jarvis said upon its digital release, the “age and delicacy” of the manuscript make it “seldom able to be viewed” in person. The leaf papyrus is, as the Cambridge Digital Library notes, full of holes, “barely legible” and composed of “four separate pieces fixed together.”

At the library site, users can see it in high resolution, zooming in very closely to any area they choose. You can also download the image, embed it, or share it on social media. And if that gets your ancient Biblical engines running, you can then see digital Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts of the Ten Commandments here and get an up close look at many other texts from that ancient treasure trove—as well as learn about them in a free online Rutgers course—here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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