On the Radar: When Everyone Had Stoves, But Not Ovens

In Le Val-d’Ajol, Vosges, France, 1934.

Called a four banal (common oven, sometimes called four à pain), the history of this oven’s practice spanned from medieval times until as recently as World War II. French seigneurs provided their serfs with a communal oven, run by a fournier, to meet their baking needs. Every house could build a fire over which they could cook “stove-top,” but this did not allow them to bake the important staple in every Frenchman’s diet–bread. After feudalism came to an end, this practice continued, as the many rural areas of the country did not have the access or necessarily the funds to frequent large boulangeries.

Delivery of bread via bread bags on the door or hung outside the window helped bring this practice to an end, as did an increase in population, public transportation, and further access roads (often as a result of war to help troop movements). Many fours banals still exist, sometimes used during communal celebrations. These ovens also helped reduced the risk of fires in a village by containing one very large portion of cooking to one place removed from the many thatched-roof houses in a town.


Source: Image by Jacques Boyer.

L’art de la bohème in Turn-of-the-Century Montmartre


Now what many Parisians consider an arrondissement almost wholly belonging to tourists, Montmartre was once a bucolic village on a hill where artists flocked to escape from the city. It was a meeting place for the avant-garde, the Paris-rejects, the burgeoning artistic movements not yet accepted by the majority. Picasso got his start in Montmartre before gaining popularity, Van Gogh created an entire series of works on the area, and famed composer Erik Satie created his hauntingly beautiful Gymnopédies upon moving to the town. Something about this cross between city and country inspired the beautiful and, often, the absurd.
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On the Radar: The Optical Phenomenon Behind “The Flying Dutchman”


In a way, the “Flying Dutchman” is real–in the sense that a specific interaction between light and atmospheric conditions causes the human eye to perceive something that’s not actually there. It’s nothing more, nothing less than a “superior mirage,” which occurs when air near the Earth’s surface is colder than the air above it (called temperature inversion–air near Earth’s surface is generally warmer than air above it). This weather condition can cause the formation of an “atmospheric duct,” which refracts light waves, making a ship appear to “fly” over the horizon line. It does not magnify the object, however, as this 19th century engraving erroneously depicts.

This combination of inversion and ducting is also responsible for the “green flash” phenomenon at sunset or sunrise, the mirage of seeing distorted or multiples of astronomical objects like the sun or moon, and the Novaya Zemla effect where the sun appears to rise earlier than it should in polar regions due to differing temperatures across atmospheric strata and the curvature of the Earth. It can also enable individuals to pick up radio signals otherwise too far to reach.


Image source: Stockton, Frank R. Round-About Rambles In Lands of Fact and Fancy. New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1872. 1910 ed. Retrieved via Project Gutenberg.

The Unsung Concept Artist Behind Disney’s Mid-Century Blockbusters

Concept art for Johnny Appleseed, Mary Blair, c. 1948. Source: The Magic of Mary Blair

Disney’s teams of animators and designers are known around the world for their unparalleled creative, innovative artistic vision and, historically, most of these great talents were men. But as it turns out, one of the most influential concept artists in the Disney arsenal was a woman named Mary Blair. Disney lovers everywhere have her to thank for the amazing imagery of well-loved mid-century favorites and one of Disney World’s most iconic rides. Continue reading

On the Radar: Soviet X-Ray Records


During the Cold War years, listening to “Western” music–especially those genres of “ill-repute” such as jazz and rock ‘n roll–could get a person sent to the Gulag. So people got creative and made bootleg records of this music on old x-rays, called “bones” or “ribs.” Because the quality was so poor, people called the experience of hearing them to be “listening through sound”–meaning sound with some faint music coming through. Watch a less-than-15-minute documentary on “X-Ray Audio” here:


Image source: X-Ray Audio

Check out the great X-Ray Audio Project website here.

Related articles:

On the Radar: Louis Armstrong serenading his wife on the Giza Plateau, 1961

The “Silent Duel” Between Stalin and Doctor Zhivago

God’s Giants in China

China Inland Mission’s Shanghai headquarters in the late 1800s. Source: Wikipedia.

Many people today know and support the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF), but few may know its past–a past dedicated specifically to China. A. Wetherell Johnson’s great autobiography, Created for Commitment, sparked my interest in the China Inland Mission (CIM)–of which she was a part, before the organization was forced to leave the nation amidst increasingly violent antipathy towards Christians and foreigners. But while the CIM worked in China, it led thousands to Christ under near-constant persecution resulting in internment, torture, and death for many of the missionaries as they faced the Boxer Rebellion, the Xinhai revolution, decades-long conflict between nationalists and communists, the communist revolution, and the Japanese occupation over the course of CIM’s presence in China for nearly 100 years. Continue reading

On the Radar: A Story of Two Watches

Image from Wikipedia. Copyright Yevgeny Khaldei.

When the Red Army liberated Berlin, the stage was set for some great Soviet propaganda. So the USSR captured the moment with this photo of a soldier raising the flag atop the Reichstag, looking out over the battered city. The only problem was the man holding him up, who sports two watches–a tell-tale sign of looting (something not unique to Soviet forces, but for which they were well-known in World War II). Before releasing the image, the Soviet government “photoshopped” these watches out of the photograph, and added a little more smoke for dramatic effect.

Sources: Der Spiegel, The Atlantic

Rattan, the Mai Tai, and Blue Hawaii: A History in “Exotic” Escapism

Source: Tiki Central.

Polynesian pop and Tiki culture have always been about escapism. The trend got its beginnings in the 20s, though social and artistic obsessions with tropical climes have existed for as long as Europeans and Americans have been around to “discover” them. Escapism, however, is not a uniquely “Western” obsession; most everyone finds joy in a culture not their own, since they don’t have to live it every day. And that’s why people like to be tourists, as well as “pretend” to be locals for a time–which is still tourism, because the stay doesn’t last. So visitors buy contrived souvenirs, dress like cowboys or Harajuku girls, ride in rickshaws or double-decker buses, and take pictures, to live it all over again. But this particular history of an escapist culture is more than an exploration of kitschy shirts and fruity drinks, because it’s not about escaping a 9 to 5. Continue reading

On the Radar: Kurokawa’s Takara Beautilion Pavilion at Japan’s EXPO ’70


Famous architect Kisho Kurokawa designed this groovy building for a world’s fair in Osaka called EXPO ’70–the first to be held in Japan. Kurokawa took a great interest in philosophy and idealized, himself, that every culture has two traditions: the visible and the invisible. He focused the majority of his work on Japan’s “invisible” traditions, including the impermanence of structures in the country due to destruction by weather and war. Designing a building for a world’s fair is the height of impermanence since most of those built for these events did not last. The modular design of this particular work speaks to the idea of impermanence since modular structures are meant to recall ideas of an endlessly possible cycle of deconstruction and rebuilding.


Sources: Image from Anton Rauben Weiss, Wikipedia — Kisho Kurokawa

Remembering Henry “Black Death” Johnson and the Harlem Hellfighters 100 Years Past Their Due

Henry Johnson, wearing his Croix de Guerre. Source: Wikipedia.

There is not, perhaps, a more amazing story of American valor and patriotism in World War I than that of the 369th Infantry Regiment. But it is also perhaps the most disappointing because of the regiment’s reception by the American government and its white citizens. One might think that stopping a 24-man German advance with nought but a Bolo knife, the butt of his rifle, and his fists would earn Hellfighter Henry Johnson some sort of American recognition, but that did not happen until two years ago in 2015, when Johnson no longer had any living relatives to accept his Medal of Honor. The Harlem Hellfighters deserve a better story than this, but hopefully it inspires a commitment to listen to diverse experiences before it’s too late to make a difference.

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On the Radar: Gerhard Richter’s Emotional Photo-Painting of His Aunt

Tante Marianne, 1965, Copyright Gerhard Richter.

For those familiar with Gerhard Richter, he is often associated with his abstract, colorful “squeegee” works. A large portion of his artistic production, however, consists of photo paintings that include his trademark “blur.” In this particular painting–one of his early works–Richter copied a photo of his Aunt Marianne holding Richter as an infant. His Aunt developed Schizophrenia, spent 21 years in a sanatorium, and was euthanized in 1945 as part of Nazi Germany’s “Aktion T4” program, meant to “cleanse” society of mentally “unfit” individuals. Of the painting, Richter said:

“Idiots can do what I do. When I first started to do this [projecting photos on the canvas and painting them after having them traced in details with a piece of charcoal] in the 60’s, people laughed. I clearly showed that I painted from photographs. It seemed so juvenile. The provocation was purely formal – that I was making paintings like photographs. Nobody asked about what was in the pictures. Nobody asked who my Aunt Marianne was. That didn’t seem to be the point.”

-From Wikipedia

This idea that anyone could do what he did taken in the context of this work reminds one of the idea that “ordinary men” did this to his aunt; average people could have done this, and they did.

Sources: Wikipedia (DE) — Marianne Schönfelder, B.Z. Berlin

The Gilded Age Woman Who Put the Original “Joy” in American Cooking

Fannie Farmer with a student. Original source unknown.

In the days where many average home cooks rely heavily on cook book recipes and Youtube tutorials, one shudders to think there existed a time without them. Before the amazing preponderance of TV chefs, Buzzfeed’s Tasty, and the like, people in America cooked without standardized measurements and without recipes until the last few decades of the 19th century. One particular woman, not letting her health issues keep her from sharing her culinary skills, changed a great deal for American cooking and even for the medical field.

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