Today in History

March 10th 2020

St. Patrick’s Day will soon be upon us, and for many that’s an occasion to wear green and drink a Guinness. But I’m using the occasion to recommend books by Irish writers.

Not that there’s anything wrong with green clothes. Or Guinness.

Given Ireland’s history, imperialism is a compelling subject to many Irish writers. Booker-winner J. G. Farrell wrote extraordinary novels that explore the human costs of colonialism:  The Troubles, The Singapore Grip and The Siege of... Read Post

July 31st 2019

This week the Discovery Channel holds its annual celebration of all matters shark-related. Without a doubt, sharks are fascinating: two-thirds of their brains are devoted to their sense of smell; they grow up to 50,000 teeth in a lifetime; shark embryos sometimes devour each other in the womb—what’s not to love? But for people in the Boston area, sharks are of more than just academic interest: 17 great white sharks have been seen in the waters off Cape Cod in the past week. 

Sharks... Read Post

March 9th 2018

Daily savings time ends this Sunday, March 11; so on Saturday night (or very early Sunday morning) everyone should set their clocks ahead one hour. Many (quite reasonably) wonder why we set our clocks back an hour during the fall in the first place. The idea behind it is conserving resources. If everyone gets up an hour later (when it’s lighter) during the winter months we’re supposedly saving energy. Supposedly Benjmain Franklin first proposed daylight saving time (DST) as a way to save... Read Post

October 30th 2017

On the evening of October 30, 1938, CBS radio broadcast an adaptation of H. G. Well's War of the Worlds, the 1898 novel about a Martian invasion of Earth, as part of the radio drama series Mercury Theatre on the Air. Written and directed by Orson Welles (left), the program was mostly in the form of simulated news bulletins. For decades stories have been told about the panic that ensued when many listeners jumped to the conclusion they were listening to an actual news broadcast.

The... Read Post

June 13th 2017

June is LGBT Pride Month, when we celebrate the LGBT Community and recognize their history and present struggles. During this month some posts on this blog will commemorate significant dates in LGBT history.

On June 13, 1995, after the Justice Department refused to become engaged in the legal fight against a Colorado amendment that denied civil rights protections for LGBT people, the Clinton Administration established the first White House liasion to the LGBT communities.... Read Post

March 20th 2017

On this day in 1778, King Louis XVI of France recieved at court two representatives of the newly declared United States, Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin. Their reception by an absolute monarch was an astonishing coup for a fledgling nation rejecting the very notion of monarchy, but Louis' hatred of Great Britain trumped concerns about encouraging rebellion againts kings. The fact that one of the emissaries was Benjamin Franklin made Louis' decision easier: Franklin was the equivalent of a... Read Post

June 24th 2016
Image of King Henry VIII

Henry VIII was crowned King of England on this day in 1509. It was the beginning of a turbulent reign, and nearly all of the turbulence was caused by his difficulties in fathering a son: he was only the second monarch of the Tudor dynasty, a family whose claim to the crown was shaky at best. To prevent a return to civil war it was essential Henry have at least one male heir. In his quest for sons, he married six times, beheaded two of his wives, and took England out of the Catholic Church.... Read Post

May 13th 2016

Friday the 13th. The unlucky day. But why do people think Friday 13th is unlucky? No one really knows. Why would anyone even think a particular day is unlucky?

Stuart Vyse, the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, says that superstitions stem out of a desire for control over our lives: so if we think there is a particular day on which the universe is out to get us, we're going to be more careful.

And if something bad happens to you on Friday... Read Post

April 8th 2016

On this day 81 years ago Congress passed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, the law that created the Works Progress Administration, an unprecedented effort by the federal government to provide employment during an economic crisis. At its peak the WPA employed over 8 million people on public projects ranging from building roads and making parks to creating public works of art and interviewing former slaves about life before Emancipation.

If you would like to know more... Read Post

March 15th 2016

On this day in 44 BC the Roman dictator Julius Caesar was assassinated. His murder and the ensuing warfare and chaos has been written about by historians, poets, playwrights and novelists.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, is a highly regarded and compulsively readable work in which she discusses the significance of Caesar's life and death, as well as other important figures in Roman history such as Cicero, Hannibal and Augustus.

If you're... Read Post

February 12th 2016

Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln. The sixteenth president was born on this day in 1809.

If you enjoy historical photography you might be interested in checking out a recent SPL acquisition, The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln, a collection of every known photograph of Lincoln, from his days as a young lawyer to the end of the Civil War. It's a beautifully printed book and a fascinating window into life in 19th-century America.

Another title I recommend is Team of Rivals: The... Read Post

July 1st 2015

1863: The Battle of Gettysburg begins, three bloody days that ended Robert E. Lee's invasion of the North, which Lee had hoped would force the North to sue for peace. Union General George Meade's army of 90,000 took on Lee's invading force of 75,000 resulting in three days of grueling fighting that resulted in roughly 51,000 casualties and forced Lee to return to Virginia.

The battle has inspired a number of award-winning books, including the eminently readable Gettysburg:... Read Post

June 26th 2015

It's been a big week at the Supreme Court: the Affordable Care Act upheld, gay marriage bans struck down, and a blow struck against housing discrimination.

The Supreme Court's rulings have had a profound impact on American society: their decision in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) ultimately ended legal school segregation; New York v. Sullivan (1964) established certain protections for the press. The profundity of the Court's influence is ironic given that... Read Post

April 15th 2015

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the murder of Abraham Lincoln. He was shot in the head in Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865, where he was watching the play Our American Cousin. A century and a half and three presidential assassinations later, it's impossible for us to comprehend what a national trauma it was. It was the first time an American president had been murdered.

Ford's Theater has put together an online exhibit on national reactions to the assassination. It's a... Read Post

March 26th 2015

On November 18, 1985, people across the country opened their newspapers (this was back when most people read newspapers) and met a sandy-haired six-year old named Calvin and his stuffed (but sentient) tiger Hobbes.  Calvin was every babysitter's nightmare, the bane of his teachers, Dennis the Menace on speed (but with a much better vocabulary and a more interesting mind). He was a source of nonstop stress for his parents and a constant torment to his neighbor Susie. Of course... Read Post

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