Blogs > Cliopatria > Things Illustrated Here and There

Jul 26, 2006 8:21 am

Things Illustrated Here and There

I've been on hiatus from blogging for the past several weeks ("on hiatus" sounds so much more intentional than my usual habit of"not getting around to it," doesn't it?). But shiny links and pretty pictures do catch my eye from time to time. With apologies to Ralph Luker, here are some things I've noted here and there. Most of these links are word-light and picture-heavy, in case your brain is in summer semi-vacation mode.

Teaching America to Draw, on exhibit at New York's Grolier Club, features drawing manuals and ephemera from the 1790s through the 1920s. Drawing and sketching were widely popular pastimes in nineteenth century America."Before box cameras became universal a century or so ago, people drew for pleasure but also because it was the best way to preserve a cherished sight, a memory, just as people played an instrument or sang if they wanted to hear music at home," says the New York Times' review."Drawing was a civilized thing to do, like reading and writing. It was taught in elementary schools." The instructional manuals on display at the Grolier Club"presume a degree of skill among ordinary citizens — even children — that would now be regarded as noteworthy in the art world."

Even if you couldn't draw Skippy the Turtle to save your life, if you like looking at gorgeous illustration, you should get to know the weblog Drawn! (The exclamation point is theirs, not mine, which is not to say I don't recommend them highly.) They've had some historical content lately, like this link to a blogger posting great illustrations and cartoons from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and an extensive if idiosyncratic collection of antique engravings and woodcuts. (Deserted abbeys, stately manors, and diabolical siege engines feature prominently.) Considerably less picturesque are a pair of anti-Japanese training / propaganda pamphlets produced by the U.S. Army during World War II:"The Punch Below The Belt" and"How to Spot a Jap," the latter illustrated by Terry and the Pirates creator Milton Caniff.

From old ways of visualizing history to very new: SIMILE Timeline is"a DHTML-based AJAXy widget" (I'll get Bill Turkel to translate that bit for me) for constructing and sharing timelines of historical events. It's sort of like Google Maps for chronological information: you can drag timelines back and forth, zoom in and out on various events, and, if you know a little XML, create and share your own historical timelines. SIMILE (it's a computing project based at MIT, but it would only scare you away if I spelled out what the acronym stands for) offers a number of sample timelines you can explore, including the JFK assassination, the life of Monet, several millenia of Jewish and Christian history, and about 100 million years of dinosaurs.

Prefer moving pictures? Scott's wife is right--this has undoubtedly been the summer of YouTube. Just like online music in the" celestial jukebox" days of Napster, so it is with online video in 2006. There has never been more old TV and video available for free on the web than there is right at this very instant, and just as soon as the industries involved figure out how to monetize the medium, there probably never will be again. Everybody can find their own favorites: An IBM cartoon about computers from 1958. An early experimental film by Muppets creator Jim Henson. Dean Martin on the Tonight Show in 1969. Crispin Glover scaring the heck out of David Letterman in 1987 (or is it all staged?). A funky-creepy-trippy AT&T short on "how to use the telephone" from 1974. OK, so maybe I'm the only person on earth who is going to pick that last one as his favorite. The point is, if there's anything you ever saw on TV that you think you'd like to see again--a funny commercial, a video, a talk-show appearance--I urge you to search for it while you can.

This last TV link is of only slight historical value, but it has brought so much joy into my life I have to share it with the world: The Amazing Screw-On Head is a new cartoon from Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. It premieres on the Sci-Fi Channel this Thursday, but you can watch the entire 22 minute pilot online. The Amazing Screw-On Head features Paul Giamatti as the voice of, well, a robot screw-on head, top spy for Abraham Lincoln in the early days of the Civil War. Saith the head:"America is depending on me, Mr. President! And by America, I mean the world." A robot-happy historian of technology, if I knew anybody fitting that description, could base his argument for the cartoon's historical value in its wonky reimagining of nineteenth-century technology (witness Lincoln's flip-clock style talking portrait, numerous steam-driven robots, and the happy plentitude of zeppelins). Plus there's an undead David Hyde Pierce, a series of overly familiar manservants, and, if you stay to the end, the Secret Truth behind the Homestead Act of 1862. As I studiously avoid news of the Beltway, Baghdad, or Beirut (like I said, I'm on hiatus), reloading the video for the umpteenth time, I'm reminded of S.J. Perelman's motto:"Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws." Has it ever been more true?

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