10 Things We Learned from the Public Domain Review’s New Book of Essays
By Bess Lovejoy
The Public Domain Review has long been one of the best places on the internet for those who love the more curious side of history. Their accounts of madness, drugs, monsters, early medicine, and more are written by notable scholars with a gift for clear writing, and illustrated with fascinating public-domain images. They’ve recently released a second book of essays, covering everything from skeletons to occult synesthesia, and it’s available for a reduced price and guaranteed Christmas delivery on orders placed before November 18. Below, the top 10 things we learned while devouring the book.
1. THE WORLD’S FIRST CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK WAS A PRECURSOR TO OLD MACDONALD HAD A FARM.
In 1658, Czech education reformer John Comenius gave the world the first picture book for kids: Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The World of Things Obvious to the Senses drawn in Pictures). Written in Latin and German, the book was similar to modern kid fare in some respects: Children were taught to “speak out rightly” by imitating the noises of cats, ducks, hares, and crows, a kind of Latin version of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” But the book also included plenty of material we might not expect in kids' books today—some of the 150 pictures depicted the slaughtering of animals, while other topics included deformed people and the basics of beer-brewing and shoe-cobbling.
2. IN THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY, A GHOST WAS A WELL-RESPECTED WRITER.
In 1913, a St. Louis housewife named Pearl Curran claimed to have contacted a Puritan poet named Patience Worth using her Ouija board. Although Worth had been dead for several centuries, she had plenty to say. Curran “transcribed” millions of words—including novels, religious tracts, and poems—that she said were dictated by Worth’s spirit coming through the planchette. Scholars embraced the works as examples of early American literature, and the pieces were anthologized alongside canonical authors.
3. ANATOMIST FREDERICK RUYSCH WAS WAY MORE METAL THAN YOU.
Dutch anatomist Frederick Ruysch wanted people to enjoy his anatomical preparations, but he thought the skeletons, deformed organs, and stillborn children he preserved for science needed to be prettied up with flowers and lace. Macabre as it may sound, Ruysch's intentions weren't to shock, and visitors piled into his Amsterdam museum. (Highlights included a male skeleton holding up a sign saying “even in death, I’m still attractive.”) In 1697, Tsar Peter the Great kissed one of the specimens, then bought the whole collection. Today, scholars credit Ruysch with helping to make the study of anatomy an acceptable pursuit.
4. THE FOUNDING FATHERS HAD SOME SURPRISING IDEAS ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE.
In the 18th century, many European thinkers believed that a welcoming climate was key to civilization. In PDR's new book, environmental economist Raphael Calel writes that “according to a prominent theory put forth by the French intellectual Jean-Baptiste Dubos, [scientific and artistic genius] only flourished in suitable climates—climate accounted for the marvels of Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Italian Renaissance, and, thanks to rising temperatures on the European continent that Dubos thought he observed, the Enlightenment."
North America was founded on the expectation that climate followed latitude, and many colonists expected New England to be as mild as England. The harsh winters were a shock, and some European thinkers developed a theory that the cold temperatures of North America caused both physical and mental degeneration. European explorers and scientists began noting that the plants and animals of North America were smaller, scrawnier, and generally wimpier than they were in Europe.
The founding fathers weren’t having it. Alexander Hamilton called such theories “arrogant pretensions of the Europeans,” and Thomas Jefferson devoted many pages of Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) to measurements showing that the animals in North America were just as big as those in Europe. As surprising as it may sound today, the colonists also argued that the clearing and cultivation of land in North America would soon warm their climate and help advance their civilization—following the ideas of thinkers like Dubos and David Hume, who believed that cultivation of the land in Europe had led to a temperate climate that produced the Enlightenment. The colonists were writing too early for anthropogenic climate change to have taken effect, however, and their ideas about the beneficial effects of warmer temperatures seem sadly mistaken today.
5. LORD BYRON’S DOCTOR WROTE THE FIRST COMPLETE VAMPIRE STORY IN ENGLISH.
According to scholar Andrew McConnell Stott, the first “fully realized” vampire story in English was John William Polidori’s 1819 “The Vampyre." Polidori got his idea for his tale during the same 1816 house party at a villa on the banks of Lake Geneva where Mary Shelley got the idea for Frankenstein. Polidori was there in his role as Lord Byron’s personal physician, and may have modeled the blood-sucking character on Lord Byron himself.
6. THE FIRST BOOK-LENGTH ACCOUNT OF AN INSANE PERSON’S DELUSIONS CONCERNED A MAN WHO BELIEVED HIS MIND WAS CONTROLLED BY A TERRIFYING "AIR LOOM."
During the French Revolution, former French peace activist James Tilly Matthews was locked away in London’s Royal Bethlem Hospital, popularly known as Bedlam. Matthews believed that a gang of villains around the corner from Bedlam was controlling his brain with a terrifying contraption called an “Air Loom,” which directed “airs” or gases such as “spermatic-animal-seminal rays,” “putrid human breath,” and “gaz from the anus of the horse,” into a “magnetic fluid” that took over the mind and body of its victim.
When London apothecary John Haslam, who had worked at Bedlam, published his account of Matthews' delusions in 1810, most medical accounts of what we now term "mental illness" amounted to only a line or two. Haslam’s Illustrations of Madness was the first full-blown treatment of an insane person, and is also now cited as the first full account of what we now term paranoid schizophrenia. Haslam also included Matthews’ drawing of the machine controlling his brain, which became the first piece of published art by an inmate.
7. THE HOT SPOT TO VISIT IN LATE 17TH/EARLY 18TH-CENTURY AMSTERDAM WAS A CABINET OF CURIOSITIES.
Levinus Vincent’s Wondertooneel der nature, or Wonder Theatre of Nature, included eight cabinets “containing 600 phials of animal cadavers in spirits, 288 boxes of indigenous and exotic insects, 32 drawers of shells and crustaceans, 14 drawers of minerals and fossils, and a cabinet with a woodland-like scene created from different kinds of corals and sponges,” writes Dutch cultural historian Bert van de Roemer. The pride of the collection was a cabinet full of insects, many arranged into decorative spirals and other patterns—perhaps a reflection of Vincent’s day job as a pattern designer and damask merchant.
8. COCAINE USED TO BE IN EVERYTHING.
OK, this one wasn’t a total surprise. In writing about Austrian lyric poet Georg Trakl, who died of a cocaine overdose in 1914, scholar Richard Millington notes just how pervasive cocaine used to be: It was espoused as a “wonder drug,” extolled by a young Sigmund Freud, included in popular tonics such as Vin Mariani and Coca-Cola, and even added to children’s toothache drops. It was so popular, the suffix -caine began being added to any synthetic substance with similar characteristics.
9. DARWIN BELIEVED OUR FACIAL EXPRESSIONS WERE THE PRODUCT OF NATURAL SELECTION.
Darwin’s 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions of Man and Animals argued that our grimaces, smiles, and frowns are all the result of evolution and are shared with other animals. The theory upset the traditional doctrine that facial expressions were a gift from God, and the result of higher-order thinking. Darwin studied photographs of the mentally ill at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum to arrive at his conclusions, since the Victorians held that the mad were emotionally uninhibited by social norms—and thus more capable of showing true expressions of emotion on their faces.
10. ONE OF BRITAIN’S MOST FAMOUS SCIENTISTS EARNED HIS REPUTATION TAKING DRUGS.
During the summer of 1799, the young chemist Humphry Davy—later one of the scientific stars of his generation, and president of the Royal Society—began experimenting with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, embarking on what medical historian Mike Jay calls a “freewheeling programme of consciousness expansion.” Davy also recruited some of the other leading figures of his day for the program, including future Poet Laureate Robert Southey and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who all enjoyed inhaling the warming, giggle-inducing gas. Davy’s final report on his project—Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide, or dephlogisticated nitrous air, and its Respiration—described the effect of the gas in minute detail, and established his scientific reputation.