Profile: Public Domain Review

Founded in 2011, The Public Domain Review is an online journal and not-for-profit project dedicated to promoting and celebrating the public domain in all its richness and variety.
All works eventually fall out of copyright – from classics works of art to absentminded doodles – and in doing so they enter the public domain, a vast commons of material that everyone is free to enjoy, share and build upon without restriction. Our aim is to help our readers explore this rich terrain – like a small exhibition gallery at the entrance to an immense network of archives and storage rooms that lie beyond.
With a focus on the surprising, the strange, and the beautiful, we hope to provide an ever-growing cabinet of curiosities for the digital age, a kind of hyperlinked Wunderkammer – an archive of materials which truly celebrates the breadth and variety of our shared cultural commons and the minds that have made it.

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The Dancing Plague of 1518

500 years ago this month, a strange mania seized the city of Strasbourg. Citizens by the hundreds became compelled to dance, seemingly for no reason — jigging trance-like for days, until unconsciousness or, in some cases, death. Ned Pennant-Rea on one of history’s most bizarre events.
Post by Ned Pennant-Rea: an editor and writer from London. He likes early modern literature and wrote his Master’s thesis on animals in Montaigne’s essays.
Cover: Detail from a 1642 engraving by Hendrik Hondius, based on Peter Breughel’s 1564 drawing depicting sufferers of a dance epidemic occurring in Molenbeek that year — Source.
Public Domain Review
CC BY 3.0

Category: Health

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Race and the White Elephant War of 1884

Feuding impresarios, a white-but-not-white-enough elephant, and racist ads for soap — Ross Bullen on how a bizarre episode in circus history became an unlikely forum for discussing 19th-century theories of race, and inadvertently laid bare the ideological constructions at their heart.
Post by Ross Bullen: English teacher at OCAD University in Toronto. You can find more of his writing here, and follow him on Twitter.
Public Domain Review

Category: History

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Made in Taiwan? How a Frenchman Fooled 18th-Century London

Benjamin Breen on the remarkable story of George Psalmanazar, the mysterious Frenchman who successfully posed as a native of Formosa (now modern Taiwan) and gave birth to a meticulously fabricated culture with bizarre customs, exotic fashions, and its own invented language.
Benjamin Breen is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He’s working on a book about the origins of the global drug trade.
Public Domain Review
A version of this essay was originally published in The Appendix in 2013.

Category: History

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Mary Toft and Her Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits

In late 1726 much of Britain was caught up in the curious case of Mary Toft, a woman from Surrey who claimed that she had given birth to a litter of rabbits. Niki Russell tells of the events of an elaborate 18th century hoax which had King George I’s own court physicians fooled.
Post by Niki Russell, Chief Library Assistant at Special Collections in the University of Glasgow Library. She blogs on her work with rare books and manuscripts: see the Special Collections website.
Public Domain Review
CC BY-SA 3.0

Category: History

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Defining the Demonic

Although Jacques Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire infernal, a monumental compendium of all things diabolical, was first published in 1818 to much success, it is the fabulously illustrated final edition of 1863 which secured the book as a landmark in the study and representation of demons.
If there is any consolation to be found, it’s that controlling our demons is possible if we’re able to name them, whether they are of the supernatural or of the rationalist variety — and in either case, a dictionary is what we shall need.
Post by Ed Simon: he is the associate editor of The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and regularly contributes to several different sites. He can be followed at his website or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.
Public Domain Review
CC BY-SA 3.0

Category: History

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Woodcuts and Witches

Jon Crabb on the witch-craze of Early Modern Europe, and how the concurrent rise of the mass-produced woodcut helped forge the archetype of the broom-riding crone — complete with cauldron and cats — so familiar today.
Jon Crabb is a writer and editor with interests in the fin-de-siècle, forgotten culture, the esoteric and anything generally weird and wonderful. He lives in London and works as Editor for British Library Publishing. He also runs their twitter feed, which he would like you to check out now.
This essay draws on material from Crabb’s Graven Images: The Art of the Woodcut, brought out by British Library Publishing.
Public Domain Review
CC BY-SA 3.0

Category: History

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Re-examining ‘the Elephant Man’

Nadja Durbach questions the extent to which Joseph Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, was exploited during his time in a Victorian ‘freakshow’, and asks if it wasn’t perhaps the medical establishment, often seen as his saviour, who really took advantage of Merrick and his condition.
Nadja Durbach was born in the United Kingdom and grew up in Canada. She completed her BA (Hons.) in 1993 at the University of British Columbia and her PhD at Johns Hopkins University in 2000. She is currently Professor of History at the University of Utah. She is the author of two books:Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853–1907 and Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. She is currently working on a book about the politics of food in Modern Britain.
(This article is reproduced with the permission of Times Higher Education)
Public Domain Review
CC BY-SA 3.0

Category: History

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Almost as Good as Presley: Caruso the Pop Idol

When he died in 1921 the singer Enrico Caruso left behind him approximately 290 commercially released recordings, and a significant mark upon on the opera world including more than 800 appearances at the New York Met. John Potter, singer and author of Tenor: History of a Voice, explores Caruso’s popular appeal and how he straddled the divide between ‘pop’ and ‘classical’.
John Potter is the author of Tenor: History of a Voice{!img=http://www.assoc-amazon.co.uk/e/ir?t=thepubdomrev-21&l=as2&o=2&a=0300118732 (Yale University Press 2009 & 2010). His latest book, A History of Singing{!img=http://www.assoc-amazon.co.uk/e/ir?t=thepubdomrev-21&l=as2&o=2&a=0521817056, jointly written with ethnomusicologist Neil Sorrell, is published this month by Cambridge University Press. A former member of the Hilliard Ensemble, he records for ECM (the Dowland Project) and Hyperion (Red Byrd and the Conductus Project), with new releases on both labels later this year.
Public Domain Review
CC BY-SA 3.0

Category: Music

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The Unsinkable Myth: The Titanic

April 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, one of the deadliest peacetime disasters at sea. Richard Howells, author of The Myth of the Titanic, explores the various legends surrounding the world’s most famous ship.
Richard Howells is a cultural sociologist at King’s College, London. He combines a background in the humanities (Visual Studies at Harvard) and the social sciences (Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge). In 2004 he was Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Center for the Arts in Society at Carnegie Mellon University in the USA. He specialises in visual and popular culture, combining theory and practice to explore case studies as seemingly diverse as the Titanic and the humour of Ali G. He has additionally published on subjects including party election broadcasts, the ontology of the celebrity photographic image, and the life and work of Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince. His books The Myth of the Titanic and Visual Culture are now in their second editions, and a volume on controversies in the arts will be out later this year in collaboration with his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon.
The Public Domain Review
CC BY-SA 3.0

Category: History

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Yellow Journalism: The “Fake News” of the 19th Century

It is perhaps not so surprising to hear that the problem of “fake news” — media outlets adopting sensationalism to the point of fantasy — is nothing new.
Although, as Robert Darnton explained in the NYRB recently, the peddling of public lies for political gain (or simply financial profit) can be found in most periods of history dating back to antiquity, it is in the late 19th-century phenomenon of “Yellow Journalism” that it first seems to reach the widespread outcry and fever pitch of scandal familiar today.

Category: History

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Darkness Over All: The Birth of the Illuminati Conspiracy

Conspiracy theories of a secretive power elite seeking global domination have long held a place in the modern imagination. Mike Jay explores the idea’s beginnings in the writings of John Robison, a Scottish scientist who maintained that the French revolution was the work of a covert Masonic cell known as the Illuminati.
Mike Jay has written extensively on scientific and medical history and is a specialist in the study of drugs. His books include A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine and High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture.
Public Domain Review
CC BY-SA 3.0

Category: History

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A 1901 Pamphlet on Verdi (Part 3 - Final)

This is Part 3 of this small pamphlet by Elbert Hubbard from 1901. In this final installment, Verdi meets finds success and finally a true love to last a lifetime.
To begin with Part 1, please click here.
Images added by NoteStream.
Public Domain Review and Internet Archive

Category: Music

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A 1901 Pamphlet on Verdi (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of this small pamphlet by Elbert Hubbard from 1901. In this installment, Verdi meets with early rejection, but also finds love!
To begin with Part 1, please click here.
Follow the author to be notified when the next installment is published. Images added by NoteStream.
Public Domain Review and
Internet Archive

Category: Music

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A 1901 Pamphlet on Verdi (Part 1)

This was a small pamphlet written by Elbert Hubbard in 1901 (from the series “Little journeys to the homes of great musicians”) on the life of the Italian composer Guiseppe Verdi. It begins with a fictionalized account of his childhood meeting with his early patron Signior Barezzi and his eldest daughter Margherita, with whom Verdi ended up falling in love.
This is Part 1 in series. Follow the author to be notified when the next installment is published. Images added by NoteStream.
Public Domain Review and
Internet Archive

Category: Music

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The Many Lives of the Medieval Wound Man

Sliced, stabbed, punctured, bleeding, harassed on all sides by various weaponry, the curious image of Wound Man is a rare yet intriguing presence in the world of medieval and early modern medical manuscripts. Jack Hartnell explores this enigmatic figure’s journey through the centuries.
Dr Jack Hartnell is Andrew W. Mellon Lecturer and Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University, New York, where his research focuses on the visual culture of medieval medicine, cartography, and mathematics. He is preparing a book on the Wound Man, as well as an introduction to medieval medical visual culture soon to be published by the Wellcome Trust and Profile Books, entitled Medieval Bodies (2017).
Public Domain Review, CC BY-SA 3.0
An earlier version of this essay, from which this text has been adapted, appears on the wonderful Wellcome Blog (Part 1, Part 2), published under a CC BY 4.0 license.

Category: History

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Cat Pianos & Other Imaginary Musical Instruments

Come join Deirdre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson, (talented curators of the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments), and explore the wonderful history of creative musical contraptions, including a piano (of yelping cats) and Francis Bacon’s 17th-century vision of experimental sound manipulation. What lessons could such figments of imagination offer?
{http://publicdomainreview.org/2015/07/15/cat-pianos-sound-houses-and-other-imaginary-musical-instruments/">Public Domain Review
(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Category: History

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Inside the Empty House: Sherlock Holmes, For King and Country

As a new series of BBC’s Sherlock revives the great detective after his apparent death, Andrew Glazzard investigates the domestic and imperial subterfuge beneath the surface of Sherlock Holmes’s 1903 return to Baker Street in Conan Doyle’s ‘The Empty House’.
Public Domain Review

Category: History

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“Frankenstein” & The Year Without A Summer

It is 200 years since “The Year Without a Summer”, when a sun-obscuring ash cloud — ejected from one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in recorded history — caused temperatures to plummet the world over. Gillen D’Arcy Wood looks at the humanitarian crisis triggered by the unusual weather, and how it offers an alternative lens through which to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a book begun in its midst.
Public Domain Review
(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Category: Book Club

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Holywell Street: Victorian London’s Dirty Book Trade

(Tentative warning: the essay includes some mildly explicit content, both text and image, which may not be suitable for all ages and dispositions!)
Victorian sexuality is often considered synonymous with prudishness, conjuring images of covered up piano legs and dark ankle-length skirts. Historian Matthew Green uncovers a quite different scene in the sordid story of Holywell St, 19th-century London’s epicentre of erotica and smut.
The Public Domain Review
(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Category: History

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The Calcutta Pococurante Society - Life in British India

What is the Calcutta Pococurante Society? It is an obscure text found on the shelves of a Bengali library relating to life in 19th century Calcutta- but it's much more entertaining than that. Scraps of verse, a manifesto to "investigate and discuss..." a number of issues including "Humbug and Absurdity". It's a delightful mix of humor, literary chatter and armchair philosophy - all dripping with booze! Kipling would approve.
Public Domain Review

Category: Book Club

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Tales from Tahiti

In 1890 Henry Adams – the historian, academic, journalist, and descendent of two US presidents – set out on a tour of the South Pacific. After befriending the family of “the last Queen of Tahiti,” he became inspired to write what is considered to be the first history of the island. Through Adams’ letters, Ray Davis explores the story of the book’s creation.
Public Domain Review

Category: History

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The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence

Defecating ducks, talking busts, and mechanised Christs — Jessica Riskin on the wonderful history of automata, machines built to mimic the processes of intelligent life.

Category: History

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Who Says Michelangelo Was Right?

When the lost classical sculpture Laocoön and His Sons — lauded as representing the very highest ideal of art — was dug up in 1506 with limbs missing, the authorities in Rome set about restoring it to how they imagined it once to look. Monique Webber explores how it was in reproductive prints that this vision was contested, offering a challenge to the mainstream interpretation of Antiquity.

Category: Arts

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On Oscar Wilde and Plagiarism

Oscar Wilde is a legendary writer with a very controversial background. He's been criticized by many artists for his plagiarizing and considered (by many) to be a literary imposter.

Category: Biography

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The Polyglot of Bologna

Michael Erard takes a look at The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti, a book exploring the extraordinary talent of the 19th century Italian cardinal who was reported to be able to speak over seventy languages.

Category: History

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The Smirk & The Smile in Portraiture

Today when someone points a camera at us, we smile. This is the cultural and social reflex of our time, and such are our expectations of a picture portrait. But in the long history of portraiture the open smile has been largely, as it were, frowned upon.
Why do we so seldom see people smiling in painted portraits? Nicholas Jeeves explores the history of the smile through the ages of portraiture, from Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to Alexander Gardner’s photographs of Abraham Lincoln.
Written by Nicholas Jeeves: an artist, writer and lecturer at Cambridge School of Art.

Category: Arts

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Ghostwriter & Ghost: Strange Case of Pearl Curran & Patience Worth

In early 20th-century St. Louis, Pearl Curran claimed to have conjured a long-dead New England puritan named Patience Worth through a Ouija board. Although mostly unknown today, the resulting books, poems, and plays that Worth “dictated” to Curran earned great praise at the time. Ed Simon investigates the curious and nearly forgotten literary fruits of a “ghost” and her ghostwriter.

Category: Biography

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The Mystery of Lewis Carroll

When Charles L. Dodgson was born in January 1832, his paternal aunt wrote a letter to his parents, welcoming the “dear little stranger” and begging them to kiss him on her behalf. His clergyman father, already “overdone with delight” whenever he looked at his family, put a notice in The Times to announce the arrival of his much-wanted first son. The baby would grow up to become Lewis Carroll, author of two of the most famous children’s books in the world.

Category: History

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When Chocolate was Medicine

Chocolate has not always been the common confectionary we experience today. When it first arrived from the Americas into Europe in the 17th century it was a rare and mysterious substance, thought more of as a drug than as a food. Christine Jones traces the history and literature of its reception.

Category: History

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Machiavelli, Comedian

“Comedian”, admittedly, isn’t the first word you associate with Machiavelli. And “funny” is not a word normally applied to Lucretius. And yet, through some strange alchemy of time, circumstance, and the rhythms of Renaissance life, those seemingly discordant elements came together in a remarkable way.

Category: History

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The Founding Fathers vs Climate Change Skeptics

When claims from Europe accused British America of being inferior on account of its colder weather, Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers responded with patriotic zeal that their settlement was actually causing the climate to warm. Raphael Calel explores how, in contrast to today’s common association of the U.S. with climate change skepticism, it was a very different story in the 18th century.

Category: History

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The History of the Ordinary

When most people think of the collections in museums, archives, and research libraries, they think of the grand collections — the papers of famous people, the documents of important events, the artifacts of significant artistic movements or time periods. However, much of history happens between big events, to ordinary people. Alongside the books and artifacts made remarkable by the famous names connected with them, however, we also have a good collection of items that document the more prosaic lives of everyday people. Because these items were viewed as mundane or commonplace, they were often discarded, making them all the more rare, so it is often a remarkable feat for these items just to survive.

Written by:
Laura Bang is the Digital and Special Collections Curatorial Assistant at Villanova University’s Falvey Memorial Library. She designs exhibits (both on site and online), oversees the Digital Library scanning operations, and enjoys reading dime novels from the popular literature collection.
Ruth Martin joined Falvey’s Digital Library Team as an intern in the summer of 2012, where she is learning about the many aspects of running a digital library. One of her projects was to scan the Fire Department scrapbook described above as well as add the metadata to the digital resource.

Category: History

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