The Rest Is History

Roman toilets, novels about (and for) housewives, and the history of women’s swimming in America.

By Angela Serratore

Friday, January 15, 2016

 Swimming star Annette Kellerman, c. 1909. State Library of New South Wales.

• Historians in Salem, Massachusetts, used archival research, mapping, and geographic tools to confirm the site where nineteen people were executed during the 1692 witch trials. (Salem News)

• The revival of the so-called housewife novel: “Anna Karenina sacrificed everything for love of her Vronsky. Emma Bovary’s illicit passions, while less elevated, exacted as harsh a penalty. An infidelity or a divorce today, while often grueling, is rarely so catastrophic. Yet housewives still feel miserable and trapped, and in their discontent, they still read an awful lot of books.” (Slate)

• Roman plumbing and sanitation left something to be desired: “In some baths the water was only changed intermittently, and could acquire a scum on the surface from human dirt and cosmetics.” (The Atlantic)

• Plagiarism allegations followed Oscar Wilde into the late nineteenth century: even if they did not claim that any of his poetry had been stolen verbatim from the Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites whose work he adored, commentators grasped that much of his work was highly derivative. The Saturday Review was fairly typical of the critical reception: ‘The book is not without traces of cleverness, but it is marred everywhere by imitation, insincerity, and bad taste.’” (Public Domain Review)

• An argument in favor of the memoirs of Henry James: “We are always in one place, Henry’s head, as he peers back from his early-twentieth-century home in England, seeking out extremely specific sensations lost. Years disappear unremarked, but one good day at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum can take up pages.” (The New Yorker)

• “The perfect woman” who brought recreational swimming to the women of America: “In the summer of 1907, an Australian woman by the name of Annette Kellerman made a startling appearance on the sands of Revere Beach just north of Boston. Amid the female sunseekers wearing the standard bathing costume of the time—blouse, skirt, stockings, swimming shoes—she strolled toward the water in a short-sleeved unitard cut to two inches above the knee. For this stunt, Kellerman was promptly arrested for indecent exposure.” (Atlas Obscura)

• Meadows, brothels, suburban houses, and a J. Crew: two hundred years on one New York City street. (Curbed)