Archive for April, 2016

How the Dutch Taught Us to Be America

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

On April 26, 1654, the Portuguese expelled all Jews from Brazil.

Before this, the Dutch were in charge and it was a much better time to be Jewish.
The Netherlands was known for its religious tolerance, and that tolerance was extended to their territories. (Although the Puritans managed to annoy them so much that they were the rare exception to the rule.)

After they were expelled from Brazil, the Jews worked their way up to Dutch territories on the Northeast coast of North America. Thus, the first Jews arrived in New York City — then, of course, known as New Amsterdam.

This didn’t sit well with Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam. He wasn’t a fan of Jews and requested permission to expel them from the city. To use his specific language, he asked the authorities in the Netherlands that they “be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony.”

To drive his point home (and to show he was an equal-opportunity-bigot), Stuyvesant told the Dutch authorities that Jews should not be granted equal liberties, otherwise Roman Catholics might also be attracted to New Amsterdam.

Luckily for Jews and Catholics (could you imagine New York City without them?) the Dutch West Indies Company denied Peter Stuyvesant’s petition on April 26, 1655, a year to the day after the Jews were forced out of Brazil.

Happy No Jews Oh Wait Yay Yes Jews Day!

Happy Public Autopsy Day!

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

On April 19, 1619, the Theatrum Anatomicum opened in Amsterdam inside the Waag, ensuring the weighing-house a place in the anals of Western Art.

The 17th century Dutch thought nothing of designating buildings for a myriad of uses – in this case, a weighing house, a guild hall, and a center dedicated to experimentation and study of human anatomy.

The Theatrum was the first place in Europe to feature dissections performed in public, which made a nice change from the illegal dissections – for instance, the one in 1550 at the St. Ursula convent.

But there was to be no sneaking around for the members of the surgeon’s guild who could now dissect the corpses of criminals, and anyone – not just surgeons or medical students, could watch, for a fee. There were cheap seats high up in the amphitheater to make the dissections affordable for everyone. What better incentive to remain a law-abiding citizen than the prospect of public dissections? (And if you missed the point, there was an inscription – still visible – that reads “Villains, obnoxious to the human race while alive, become useful when dispatched.”)

The Waag went on to have many more uses – as a fencing hall, a marketplace, streetlamp workshops and at least one furniture business – but it was the dissection theater where science met art. The subject of Rembrandt’s first major commission was a dissection, and his painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp hung in the surgeon’s guild hall of the Waag.

So today, lift a scalpel to the proud scientists, the public who learned from them, and the artists who commemorated them.


Art Notes Sticky Notes

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

Ever heard of “Picture Superiority Effect” (it’s easier to remember pictures than words)? We’ve been road-testing this idea.4365_l-01

What if your sticky notes had frames on them to encourage you to think in pictures?


Sure, you could tie a string on your finger as a reminder. Or put a puppet on. (We do.) But those are hard to write on.)


The frame around each note makes the everyday into art although Art Notes work even if you’re more of a writer than an artist.Sticky-Note-3

But you know what? Maybe you’re a conceptual artist.


Art Notes are perfect for the everyday art you make. Now you can make art every day!


What have you made today? These are our Art Notes – send us yours!


Charles Dickens and the World’s First Deaf-Blind College Graduate

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

In the days before tl;dr, Charles Dickens wrote – and thousands read – American Notes for General Circulation, his book about an unhappy trip to the United States. Plenty is written elsewhere about Dickens’ “Quarrel with America” and the unflattering observations he made about the former colonies in his American Notes and Marin Chuzzlewit.

But his reviews weren’t all bad. In fact, Dickens gave a favorable account of his visit to Boston:

Above all, I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect, as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them.


In the days before the Internet, the wife of a former Confederate officer in Tuscaloosa, Alabama read about the Perkins Institution in American Notes. Thus, nearly 17 years after Dickens’ death, a headstrong Perkins graduate arrived and became teacher and governess to a headstrong deaf-blind six-year-old named Helen Keller.

It took almost exactly a month for Helen’s breakthrough. (It came at the family’s water pump, when Helen realized the meaning of the signs her teacher made in her hand meant: w-a-t-e-r.)

Below, courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind web site, is the transcription of the letter Anne Sullivan wrote to Sophia C. Hopkins that very night:

Anne’s Letter to Sophia C. Hopkins (April 5, 1887)

April 5, 1887.

I must write you a line this morning because something very important has happened. Helen has taken the second great step in her education. She has learned that everything has a name, and that the manual alphabet is the key to everything she wants to know.

We went out to the pump-house, and I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled “w-a-t-e-r” in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled “water” several times. Then she dropped on the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and the trellis, and suddenly turning round she asked for my name. I spelled “Teacher.” Just then the nurse brought Helen’s little sister into the pump-house, and Helen spelled “baby” and pointed to the nurse. All the way back to the house she was highly excited, and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours she had added thirty new words to her vocabulary. Here are some of them: Door, open, shut, give, go, come, and a great many more.

P.S.–I didn’t finish my letter in time to get it posted last night; so I shall add a line. Helen got up this morning like a radiant fairy. She has flitted from object to object, asking the name of everything and kissing me for very gladness. Last night when I got in bed, she stole into my arms of her own accord and kissed me for the first time, and I thought my heart would burst, so full was it of joy.

Helen Keller went on to attend Perkins, herself, and to become the first deaf-blind person in the world to graduate from college.

Though we live in a world of tl;dr, sometimes it’s necessary to read everything, read the cranky things, read the smart and the well-observed and the generous things.


On his second tour of the U.S. from 1867-68, Dickens had his best-seller The Old Curiosity Shop published in Braille at his own expense and gave copies to all of the U.S. schools for the blind.