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Posts from the ‘Advent Calendar 2019’ Category

12. A Celluloid Comb

By Georgia Oman (@Georgia_Oman)

In the late nineteenth century, celluloid combs were all the rage. ‘Few women consider their hair properly dressed nowadays unless they have at least three combs’, declared one newspaper in 1900.[1] An artificial thermoplastic first registered in 1870, celluloid’s easily mouldable nature made it a cheap replacement for more expensive materials such as ivory and tortoiseshell. However, as the same article went on to advise, ‘it is wiser to save up one’s money for the purchase of real tortoiseshell than to trust the cheap and perilous celluloid.’[2]

Almost as soon as celluloid combs began to be produced, stories abounded about the disastrous results. In 1898, reports of a ‘little Paris girl’ who sat too close to the fire made it into several British newspapers. ‘The burning point of celluloid is about 180 deg.,’ explained the North-Eastern Daily Gazette, ‘and the comb had attained that heat as it was before the fire.’[3] A writer in the Newcastle Weekly Courant revealed ‘a similar accident befell me some two years back’, and warned of the danger in buying celluloid products.[4] The Penny Illustrated Paper received a letter from a reader the following year, who wrote,

At present I am confined to my house by a severe burn caused by the sudden ignition of a celluloid comb in my head. The inflammable stuff took fire solely from the heat, no spark having touched it.[5]

So please, enjoy the celluloid comb in this year’s Doing History in Public advent calendar – just don’t sit too close to any roaring Christmas fires.



[1] ‘The World of Women’, The Bury and Norwich Post, and Suffolk Standard, 18 December 1900, p. 2.

[2] ‘The World of Women’, p. 2.

[3] ‘CHIPS’, The North-Eastern Daily Gazette, 7 October 1898.

[4] ‘Our Home Circle’, The Newcastle Weekly Courant, 8 January 1898, p. 5.

[5] Marguerite, ‘Multiple News Items’, The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times, 18 February 1899, p. 108.

Image: Comb, Wikipedia Commons.


9. Japan: the Pocket Guide

By Wonik Son

Japan’s re-entry into tourism after World War II began on the day that sovereignty was restored, seven years after defeat. In 1952, the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB), the Japanese government’s corporate arm tasked with promoting and facilitating travel to the country, published two tourist books, a Pocket Guide and an Official Guide. The Pocket Guide’s introductory message is dated as 28 April 1952 – the day the Treaty of San Francisco, which formally ended the American occupation of the Japanese mainland, took effect.

The guide explicitly targets an American audience, with prices converted to US dollars, and travel routes conveniently originating in the US. The Pocket Guide’s text is book-ended by advertisements from financial institutions such as the Fuji Bank, the Nippon Kangyo Bank, and Teikoku Bank; the exotic – the Ozawa Doll Shop; and the luxurious – Mikimoto pearls and jewels in the fashionable Ginza district. From a material motivation, tourism, as manifested by the guides, sought the influx of US dollars facilitated by the currency exchange services provided by Japanese banks and the commercial market for the Oriental.

Yet, with passages on Japanese customs and history, and an entire chapter on “what has changed” since the war, these guides are as much for the Japanese as they are for foreign tourists. The infrastructure that facilitated tourism in Japan – railways, highways, and leisure areas – without a doubt reconfigured Japanese citizens’ relationship with their surroundings. The governmental influence in the production of tourist sites and activities in preparation for publication effectively made the guides state sanctioned guidelines to leisure in the postwar. The JTB’s 1952 travel guides are exercises in recreating and reconstituting postwar national identity through a systematic revision of its recent history and a redefinition of what is legitimately “Japanese.” It is also a continuation of Japan’s own unforgotten colonial desires onto a new America-centric postwar reality, facilitated through the economics of foreign travel.[1]


[1] Nihon Kōtsū Kōsha, Japan. Tetsudōshō, & Japan. Kokusai Kankōkyoku, Japan: the Pocket Guide (1952).

Image: Nihon Kōtsū Kōsha, Japan. Tetsudōshō, & Japan. Kokusai Kankōkyoku. Japan: the Pocket Guide. (1952). Originals are held by the Harvard-Yenching Library of the Harvard College Library, Harvard University. Used with the kind permission of the Harvard-Yenching Library.


8. A Long Rifle

By Nicolas Bell-Romero (@NicoBellRomero)

‘So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!’[1]

In the 2000 presidential election that brought George W. Bush to the White House, the famous actor (and President of the National Rifle Association), Charlton Heston, made this incendiary comment while brandishing a long rifle above his head in response to a perceived threat against the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Why a rifle, and what was the significance of tying this weapon to a cause for liberty and individual rights?

Made of walnut and iron by German immigrants, the Pennsylvania Rifle – later known as the Kentucky Rifle – and the riflemen who wielded it were steeped in colonial folklore that began, in large part, during the American Revolution. In the late eighteenth century, a time when the colonists imported most of their firearms from Britain, the revolutionaries transformed the rifle into a symbol of freedom, as it was made within the thirteen colonies and largely wielded by the “riflemen”, a unit of soldiers who were celebrated for their marksmanship and birth on the western borderlands of North America.[2]

The frontiersmen Daniel Boone and Daniel Morgan entered the American pantheon because of their service and leadership of these rifle companies in the war against Britain. Yet there was a far darker side to the rifle. Before, during, and after the Revolution, the American colonists wielded this weapon against Native Americans in their struggle to colonise the continent. In the process, the rifle became a symbol of the rugged individualist striving to expand America’s empire in the face of Indian resistance.

[1] Charlton Heston, ‘From My Cold Dead Hands. Long Version.,’ YouTube. 26 April 2008. Retrieved 19 November 2019,

[2] Pennsylvania Packet, 28 August 1775.

Image: Southern long rifle. Source: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

7. A Jacobite Teapot

By Carys Brown (@HistoryCarys)

This seemingly innocuous teapot has a seditious past. Painted with an image of Charles Edward Stuart (known to his supporters as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”), this was a Jacobite object. The Jacobites were those who, following the “Revolution” of 1688-9, when James II fled Britain and was replaced as monarch by William and Mary, supported the return of the exiled Stuart monarchy to the British throne. This support made them treasonous criminals in the eyes of the Hanoverian Protestant state. As a result, they had to keep their written communication to a minimum, and destroy much of what they received. Jacobite objects were often used as an alternative means of communicating politically and demonstrating loyalty to the Stuarts.

Caution was necessary, however, and an explicitly Jacobite object such as this would have needed to be kept hidden. Drinking tea was an important social activity in the eighteenth century, but this object would not have been everyone’s cup of tea. The owners would certainly have had to have been sure about the political loyalties of their company before they used it. This teapot was not just a tool for a pleasant social occasion, but a highly risky means of reinforcing group political loyalties.

Image: Jacobite teapot, Staffordshire, c. 1750-65. White salt-glazed stoneware painted in enamels, width c. 22cm (spout to handle). Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge – Object number Object Number: C.112 & A-1950. Given by Mrs W. B. Dickson, 1950. Picture – Fitzwilliam Museum Online Collection Available under Creative Commons.

6. An Early Modern Urine Flask

By Philippa Carter

‘Uroscopy’ (the examination of urine) was a standard diagnostic tool for most early modern physicians. Having just come from inside the patient’s body, urine was understood to contain vital information about what was happening in there.

According to early modern medical theory, every human body contained a mixture of four liquids known as the humours: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. Health was preserved by keeping these humours in proportion to one another; humoral imbalance led to disease. So if you had too much black bile in your body (a cold, dry, heavy humour), you might be consumed by dark, heavy thoughts, or suffer from constipation.

A healthy body prevented imbalance by getting rid of excess humours via all of its exit routes (the nostrils, the mouth, the bladder, and so on). Urine was understood to contain excreted humours, so its colour and quality showed what kind of state they were in. Physicians looked at, smelled (and reportedly sometimes tasted) their patients’ urine, and consulted colour-coded uroscopy wheels to help them to interpret its contents. So if you have to give a urine sample this Christmas, remember it could be worse!


A uroscopy wheel. U. Binder, Epiphaniae medicorum, 1506. Wellcome Collection, London. Available under a Creative Commons licence.


Featured image: (C) Museum of London. Reproduced with Museum’s permission.


5. The Rogue’s Gallery

By Walker Schneider (@WalkerSchneider

Today crime-fighting relies on massive criminal databases. In the United States, this practice can be traced back to Gilded Age New York City and the Rogues’ Gallery, the great-grandfather of modern criminal databases. Deep within the New York City Police Department’s headquarters on Mulberry Street, the Rogues’ Gallery was a hulking mass of dark polished wood that stood five feet tall and four feet wide. Its two doors opened to reveal large wooden panels that could be flipped through like pages in a book. Each panel held a hundred photographic portraits of known criminals from around the world.

By 1895, the Rogues’ Gallery was home to over fifteen hundred such portraits, with additional empty panels for future entries. Every photograph in the Rogues’ Gallery had a card attached to its back with information about the criminal ranging from their name to identifying features to their most recent movements. In 1886, the head of New York City’s Detective Bureau bragged that the Rogues’ Gallery was “probably the most complete criminal directory in the country.”[1]

As American policing evolved from local efforts to inter-regional (and even international) collaborations, these photographic portraits and their accompanying information were shared with other police departments within the United States and in Europe. By the mid-twentieth century, the practices popularised by the Rogues’ Gallery had become standardised throughout the United States and Europe. You might know them as mugshots and “Most Wanted” lists. So, the next time the face of a known criminal flashes across the news, think back to Gilded Age New York City and its giant criminal encyclopaedia, the Rogues’ Gallery.


[1] Byrnes, T., Professional Criminals of America (New York: Cassell & Company, 1886), p.54.

Image: ‘Police Headquarters, The “Rogue’s Gallery”. The mug shot collection at the New York City Police Headquarters.’ Taken by Richard Hoe Lawrence (1858-1936) for Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914). Used under Museum of the City of New York Collections‘ Fair Use Guide.

Link to Image:

1. Oriel College Postcard

by Lucy Inskip (@lucyskippin)

Rather than finding the most outlandish historical object from a heritage site or online collection, I looked to my own bookshelf for an interesting piece of history. I bought this vintage Oxford coloured postcard print from Antiques on High whilst reading History at Oriel College, University of Oxford (2016-2019). It is from an original watercolour drawing of Oriel, by Alfred Robert Quinton (1853-1934).

The postcard reads: ‘Dear Freda, This is a lovely old town with most beautiful buildings & the weather is good. Daddy’. Sent with a One Penny King George V 1912-1922 Royal Cypher Watermark Stamp in the 6.30pm post on 7 April 1920, this charming postcard’s final destination was a certain Miss Freda Shepherd at an address in Upper Tooting, South West London. Though little is known about these correspondents, aside from their relationship and her address.

The postcard itself was printed and published by J. Salmon founded in 1880, in Sevenoaks, Kent. Joseph Salmon (the son and namesake of the founder) published postcards featuring the work of Alfred Robert Quinton from around 1912 until the artist’s death in 1934.

Image: Author’s own photograph.