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11 Wonderful Wunderkammer, or Curiosity Cabinets

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The glass display cases called "curio cabinets" got both their form and their name from the historic "Cabinets of Curiosity." Though ubiquitous today, curio cabinets come from a rich history of passionate collectors and exultant status-seekers, looking for the flashiest proclamations of their presence in society.

Cabinets of Curiosity were also known as Wunderkammer, Cabinets of Wonder, or Wonder-Rooms. They first became popular during the Northern Renaissance, but that popularity didn't reach its apex until the Victorian era. Where amateur and professional scientists once kept their most prized specimens hidden away, society-folk now possessed the flashiest and rarest finds, and proudly displayed them for all to see. Though the traditional Wonder-Rooms—where entire rooms were filled with glass cases and collections—still existed in Victorian times, they were mostly the realm of royalty and academic institutions. The tradition of a personal collection to show off reached the newly burgeoning middle class, and the singular glass "curio cabinet" with one's most prized collection items skyrocketed in popularity. 

Among those collections, there are many fascinating and unexpected finds. Here are a few collectors and their curious collections.

1. Beatrix Potter 

Lactarius blennius, Beech Milkcap 

Best known for her self-illustrated children’s stories, such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, Beatrix Potter was also an accomplished amateur mycologist, or one who studies fungus. She collected many volumes of illustrations and observations on lichens and mushrooms, and collected many dried specimens. In addition to mycology, she was also taken by the world of entomology—the study of insects—and botany, and acquired many insect and plant specimens, though she did not often keep them in her personal collection for long; many of the biological specimens given to her were passed along to London’s Natural History Museum. However, several cabinets of fossils and archaeological artifacts were kept in her possession and displayed proudly, even when she moved to the countryside to raise her award-winning sheep herd.

In addition to the Natural History Museum and National Art Library, a few of Potter’s archeological specimens, many of her original illustrations and paintings, and first-edition copies of all of her publications are found at the Armitt Collection in Ambleside, of which she was a member from its founding in 1912.

2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Smithsonian

President Roosevelt was a philatelist—that is, he collected stamps. Beginning in childhood, FDR loved stamps, and had amassed a huge collection by the time he came to office. When asked how he remained calm and collected in such troubled times as the Great Depression, Roosevelt said, “I owe my life to my hobbies—especially stamp collecting.” In fact, the president loved stamps to the point where the Postmaster General had to get his approval on every new design while he was in office. Roosevelt even had a hand in designing many of the stamps issued during his term, and was known to sit down with the Postmaster General to collaborate on new stamp concepts, especially during his worst times in office. His passion for stamps (and his ability to indulge in them to a degree very few other philatelists got to) is what kept him “level-headed and sane” during the most stressful periods, according to his son.

Though he was most well-known for his stamp collecting, and influenced the field of philately more than any other group collectors, Roosevelt also had large collections of ship models and naval art, coins, and Hudson River Valley art. While some of his stamp collection has been dispersed to private collectors and museums across the country, the majority of his other collections are now found at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

3. Sowerby Family

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With four generations of conchologists (those who study shells), the Sowerby family amassed an incredible collection of shells and mollusc specimens. Confusingly for taxonomy historians and antiquarians, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of the naturalist patriarch (James de Carle Sowerby) had exactly the same name: George Brettingham Sowerby. They were almost always noted only as “G.B. Sowerby” in mollusca monographs and scientific papers, and even when the date of publication was known for the paper, the generations overlapped in their work. At least two of the three G.B. Sowerbys also illustrated both conchological and other zoological collections from various expeditionary voyages.

While initially known for their illustrations of the collection of the Earl of Tankerville during the 1810s, the Sowerbys later amassed a large collection of their own shells, and illustrated many times the number of specimens they personally owned. Unfortunately, the location of many of the Sowerby shells is unknown. However, their more than 4000 mollusca illustrations live on—as do many of the names given to the new species first detailed by the Sowerby family.

4. Ole Worm

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One of the most notable “cabinets of curiosity” belonged to 17th century naturalist, antiquarian, and physician Ole Worm. A rich man by inheritance, Ole Worm collected specimens from the natural world, human skeletons, ancient runic texts, and artifacts from the New World. As an adult, Worm was the personal physician to King Christian IV of Denmark, but continued to collect and write about everything he found interesting.

Worm’s thoughts on various objects in his collection were at once rational and pre-modern. While he scoffed at those who passed off narwhal tusks as “unicorn horns”—and would set other naturalists straight when they asserted they had such a horn—he conjectured that perhaps the traits attributed to the mythological unicorn horn (such as being a universal antidote) still held true to the tusk. He used his collection to teach others, and his specimens and illustrations showed that two myths of the era were demonstrably false: lemmings did not appear from thin air, but reproduced like normal animals, and the bird of paradise did, indeed, have feet.

Outside of his Cabinet, Ole Worm owned a now-extinct Great Auk, kept for several years (until its death, and subsequent inclusion in the Cabinet) as a pet. An illustration of this bird while it was still alive is the only known representation of the species from life; all other representations have been created from dead specimens or were drawn from accounts made by sailors who had encountered the live animals.

5. Tradescant family

Ashmolean Museum

Another family with all-too-similar names, the John Tradescants were at least referred to as “Tradescant the Elder” and “Tradescant the Younger” in contemporary texts. During the course of the 17th century, the Tradescants amassed a huge collection from the natural world, as well as the world of anthropology. As the younger John travelled west, to Virginia, and collected objects and specimens in that direction, the elder travelled east, to Russia, and expanded the collection in that direction, too. Both Tradescants gathered objects from nature, weapons, armor, traditional garments, jewels, royal artifacts, and any other objects that caught their fancy. Eventually, the collection was arranged in such a way to form the first truly public museum—the Tradescant Ark. Unlike other cabinets of curiosity, anyone could tour it, not just aristocracy or friends of the family. All were welcome, assuming you could afford the 6p entry fee!

Though the elder John amassed a small fortune as a master gardener for royalty across Europe, the collection also included many priceless objects donated by society elites. After John the Younger’s death in 1662, Elias Ashmole published a catalogue of the objects in the museum, but had the book written in a format that appealed to popular culture, not just academics. Ashmole eventually took over the collection, and it formed the basis of the eponymous Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at Oxford University. Though the museum no longer bears their name, the Tradescants are still honored in the name of the Tradescantia genus of flowering spiderworts.

6.  Lady Charlotte Guest

Classic Books and Ephemera

Despite being brought up in a family that discouraged education for girls, Lady Charlotte Guest found her own way to learn a half-dozen languages, and knew the mythology and history of cultures around the world, by the time she married at 21. Her passion for learning and languages meant that she would eventually become best known for translating English books to Welsh, and publishing a collection of traditional Welsh folk tales in English, entitled Mabinogion.

However, her pursuits spanned far beyond the world of language. Her love of history and her upper-class upbringing stirred a fascination with ceramics and china from a young age. After being widowed at age 40, she found that one of her sons’ tutors, Charles Schreiber, had a similar passion, and soon re-married. She and her second husband travelled far and wide within Europe to collect some of the oldest and rarest ceramics and chinaware. Their huge collection was considered an honor to be shown while Schreiber lived, as he was a notable Dorset elite, and MP for Poole.

After his death in 1884, Lady Guest made the collection public, viewable for free. When she, too, passed away, she bequeathed the ceramics and china to the Victoria and Albert Museum. During her lifetime, she also amassed a large collection of board games, cards, and fans in her travels, which she donated to the British Museum.

7. Johann Hermann

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Just like many university students, Johann Hermann started on one path, but ended up going somewhere completely different. Though initially studying philosophy, mathematics, and literature, Hermann eventually turned toward botany and medicine, receiving his M.D. in 1762 from the University of Strasbourg. Despite being a physician—and soon a Professor of Medicine at Strasbourg—he never stopped collecting specimens for his personal natural history cabinet, or cataloging the natural history around his region. He was soon made curator of the Botanical Gardens at the University of Strasbourg, and would head weekly natural history excursions into Alsace and Vosges.

During the French Revolution, Hermann was transferred to the School of Medicine at Strasbourg, and despite attempted suppression by the revolutionaries, he continued to maintain his collection, take students on cataloging excursions, and tend to the gardens at the University. Due to losing public and school funding for these projects, he put all of his own energy and wealth into them. Hermann even saved the statues of the Strasbourg Cathedral (due to be demolished by the Revolution, as they were “frivolous”) by burying them within the gardens.

After his death in 1800, Johann Hermann’s 18,000 natural history volumes formed the basis of the Natural History Museum of Strasbourg. His zoological and botanical collections formed the basis of the Zoological Museum of Strasbourg, and the gardens at the University of Strasbourg are still open to the public.

8. Robert Edmond Grant

Another physician who preferred the natural history world over medicine, Robert Edmond Grant collected one of the largest Cabinets of invertebrates in England during the first half of his life.

The Edinburgh-born Grant was a student of Erasmus Darwin’s writings—though the two never met—and learned the importance of dissection from none other than Georges Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in the late 1810s. He later used his practice in dissection to teach Charles Darwin how to dissect marine invertebrates under a microscope, in their natural habitat. Though the two later had a falling-out over research domains, Darwin continued to use the methods and habits that Grant had taught him, as he came to his eventual conclusions on evolution.

Grant taught comparative zoology at University College London between 1827 and his death in 1874, but during the second half of his life, the enrollment in his courses was too low to pay him a living wage. Rather than sell off his collection (which, despite personally collecting, he believed belonged to those who could learn from it), or take up practicing medicine in London, he chose to live in the slums.

Interestingly, Robert Edmond Grant would probably object to being included in this list of curious collections. He campaigned for the Zoological Society collections to be curated and run by professionals rather than by aristocratic amateurs, and for the British Museum to become a research institution rather than simply a place to admire and gawk at the unusual and bizarre.

9. Joseph Mayer

Liverpool Museum

At the other end of the spectrum from Robert Edmund Grant was Joseph Mayer, a well-to-do goldsmith of 19th century Liverpool, and a proponent of amateur contribution and control of large collections of antiques and curiosities. He collected potteries and Greek coins as a youth and jeweler’s apprentice, but eventually sold off his Greek coins to the French government.

The rest of Mayer’s collection kept growing, encompassing cultural artifacts, Wedgewood pottery, historic ceramics, ancient enamels, and the collections of many older amateur antiquarians who lived in the Merseyside and Cheshire regions. His successful goldsmithing business and the sale of his Greek coin collection gave him the funds to begin some of the first serious excavations of Anglo-Saxon artifacts inside England—up until Mayer, there was very little interest in that field, with antiquarians looking to Continental Europe and Egypt. Not that he didn’t love Egypt; one of the first truly Ancient Egyptian collections was held by Mayer for a time.

Despite the massive number of Egyptian acquisitions, Joseph Mayer’s passion was in England, and he’s been most known for his contributions to the field of Anglo-Saxon archaeology, and his contributions to the communities he lived in. Despite being an amateur collector and not thinking that he should leave the scholarly work and curation of artifacts to universities and researchers, Mayer and Robert Edmond Grant would have shared at least one conviction—that everyone is served when all levels of society are given access to lectures about the massive eclectic collections living right next door. Both the Mayer Trust (Joseph Mayer’s legacy) and the Grant Museum of Zoology (Grant’s legacy) give public lectures and provide for the public education to this day.

10.  Ida Laura Pfieffer

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One might assume that if you’re sailing at sea for over 100,000 km, travelling overland for 30,000 km, and spending your entire life after your sons have grown as a nearly nomadic explorer, there’s not much point in collecting things—after all, where would you keep them? Austrian lady Ida Laura Pfieffer saw things differently, though, and while making her record-setting and ground-breaking voyages and treks between 1842 and 1858, she collected and carefully documented thousands of plant, insect, marine, and mineral specimens, which currently reside in the Natural History Museums of Berlin and Vienna. Her 1856 collection of Malagasy (Madagascar) plants and insects was one of the first substantial looks at how unique the island was on a floral and entomological level, and many of her specimens were brand new species, even though she didn’t know it at the time.

On top of her biological specimens, Mrs. Pfieffer also collected an invaluable account of many of the world’s cultures, from the unique perspective of a female travelling solo, in a time when that was nearly unheard of for proper women. Despite her modesty, the fact that she was a mother of grown sons, and a widower (not simply a single lady riding the waves—far more taboo), her travels and travelogues were initially questioned and looked down upon as “lesser.”  By the end of her life, though, she was highly respected and sought after by many notable exploration and geographical societies. Because of her gender, she had gained access to many places and cultures that shunned and attacked men, and gave a new perspective to many cultures that had been previously documented only by male explorers.

11. Athanasius Kircher

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It takes quite a person to have a mineral named after them more than 300 years after their death, but in August 2012, kircherite gave Athanasius Kircher just such a distinction. Not that he was without distinction in his own time—he was a distinguished Jesuit polymath, wrote dozens of books on his observations of the natural and historical world, and had a massive and well-known Cabinet of Curiosities in Rome. Though he was not much of an inventor himself, he investigated everything he could, and his publications on many inventions (such as the “magic lantern”) gave much wider circulation and publicity to otherwise-unknown innovation.

Kircher was one of the first to take a scholarly interest in decoding Egyptian hieroglyphs, and he collected Egyptian statuary and artifacts in addition to manuscripts and transcriptions of carved hieroglyphic writing. Chinese artifacts, samples of minerals from his varied travels throughout Europe (including rocks taken while dangling from a rope inside the cone of Vesuvius), odd devices, and rare European antiquities rounded out the Museum Kircherianum—which Kircher founded in the 1670s—when his private residence was no longer large enough to house his entire collection. This museum was technically open to the public, but for most of its existence Athanasius found great pleasure in demanding scholarly letters of “recommendation” from nobility and clergy who would come through town and think to stop by. Even the pope wasn’t exempt from this requirement!

A notable exemption from Kircher’s Museum was one of the things he’s most known for: the “Katzenklaver,” or “cat piano.” While he illustrated the concept, it was in a work on how musical theories were universal in birdsong, instrumental pieces, and nature—thankfully for the cats, there’s zero evidence of him having created the “instrument,” or even having wanted to.

While Kircher himself was much more well-known than the Tradescant family thanks to his publications, his museum was less visited, especially after the Jesuits who owned the building it was housed in decided to move the curiosities to a less busy part of town. The plague ravaging Europe and Rene Descartes causing his personal popularity to dwindle probably didn’t help business, either. Despite the frustration with his treasures being moved towards the end of his life, Kircher continued to amass more objects and correspond with many academics and religious scholars until his death in 1680. It would take until nearly the 1700s before all of his artifacts (or at least the ones that were not sold off) were catalogued, and researchers are still coming across correspondences of his that had either been forgotten or never recorded in the first place.

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8 of the Weirdest Gallup Polls
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Born in Jefferson, Iowa on November 18, 1901, George Gallup studied journalism and psychology, focusing on how to measure readers’ interest in newspaper and magazine content. In 1935, he founded the American Institute of Public Opinion to scientifically measure public opinions on topics such as government spending, criminal justice, and presidential candidates. Although he died in 1984, The Gallup Poll continues his legacy of trying to determine and report the will of the people in an unbiased, independent way. To celebrate his day of birth, we compiled a list of some of the weirdest, funniest Gallup polls over the years.

1. THREE IN FOUR AMERICANS BELIEVE IN THE PARANORMAL (2005)

According to this Gallup poll, 75 percent of Americans have at least one paranormal belief. Specifically, 41 percent believe in extrasensory perception (ESP), 37 percent believe in haunted houses, and 21 percent believe in witches. What about channeling spirits, you might ask? Only 9 percent of Americans believe that it’s possible to channel a spirit so that it takes temporary control of one's body. Interestingly, believing in paranormal phenomena was relatively similar across people of different genders, races, ages, and education levels.

2. ONE IN FIVE AMERICANS THINK THE SUN REVOLVES AROUND THE EARTH (1999)

In this poll, Gallup tried to determine the popularity of heliocentric versus geocentric views. While 79 percent of Americans correctly stated that the Earth revolves around the sun, 18 percent think the sun revolves around the Earth. Three percent chose to remain indifferent, saying they had no opinion either way.

3. 22 PERCENT OF AMERICANS ARE HESITANT TO SUPPORT A MORMON (2011)

Gallup first measured anti-Mormon sentiment back in 1967, and it was still an issue in 2011, a year before Mormon Mitt Romney ran for president. Approximately 22 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, even if that candidate belonged to their preferred political party. Strangely, Americans’ bias against Mormons has remained stable since the 1960s, despite decreasing bias against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and women.

4. MISSISSIPPIANS GO TO CHURCH THE MOST; VERMONTERS THE LEAST (2010)

This 2010 poll amusingly confirms the stereotype that southerners are more religious than the rest of the country. Although 42 percent of all Americans attend church regularly (which Gallup defines as weekly or almost weekly), there are large variations based on geography. For example, 63 percent of people in Mississippi attend church regularly, followed by 58 percent in Alabama and 56 percent in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Utah. Rounding out the lowest levels of church attendance, on the other hand, were Vermont, where 23 percent of residents attend church regularly, New Hampshire, at 26 percent, and Maine at 27 percent.

5. ONE IN FOUR AMERICANS DON’T KNOW WHICH COUNTRY AMERICA GAINED INDEPENDENCE FROM (1999)

Although 76 percent of Americans knew that the United States gained independence from Great Britain as a result of the Revolutionary War, 24 percent weren’t so sure. Two percent thought the correct answer was France, 3 percent said a different country (such as Mexico, China, or Russia), and 19 percent had no opinion. Certain groups of people who consider themselves patriotic, including men, older people, and white people (according to Gallup polls), were more likely to know that America gained its independence from Great Britain.

6. ONE THIRD OF AMERICANS BELIEVE IN GHOSTS (2000)

This Halloween-themed Gallup poll asked Americans about their habits and behavior on the last day of October. Predictably, two-thirds of Americans reported that someone in their house planned to give candy to trick-or-treaters and more than three-quarters of parents with kids reported that their kids would wear a costume. More surprisingly, 31 percent of American adults claimed to believe in ghosts, an increase from 1978, when only 11 percent of American adults admitted to a belief in ghosts.

7. 5 PERCENT OF WORKING MILLENNIALS THRIVE IN ALL FIVE ELEMENTS OF WELL-BEING (2016)

This recent Gallup poll is funny in a sad way, as it sheds light on the tragicomic life of a millennial. In this poll, well-being is defined as having purpose, social support, manageable finances, a strong community, and good physical health. Sadly, only 5 percent of working millennials—defined as people born between 1980 and 1996—were thriving in these five indicators of well-being. To counter this lack of well-being, Gallup’s report recommends that managers promote work-life balance and improve their communication with millennial employees.

8. THE WORLD IS BECOMING SLIGHTLY MORE NEGATIVE (2014)

If you seem to feel more stress, sadness, anxiety, and pain than ever before, Gallup has the proof that it’s not all in your head. According to the company’s worldwide negative experience index, negative feelings such as stress, sadness, and anger have increased since 2007. Unsurprisingly, people living in war-torn, dangerous parts of the word—Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Sierra Leone—reported the highest levels of negative emotions.

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11 Times Mickey Mouse Was Banned
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Despite being one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved characters, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Mickey Mouse, who turns 89 years old today. A number of countries—and even U.S. states—have banned the cartoon rodent at one time or another for reasons both big and small.

1. In 1930, Ohio banned a cartoon called “The Shindig” because Clarabelle Cow was shown reading Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn, the premier romance novelist of the time. Check it out (1:05) and let us know if you’re scandalized:

2. With movies on 10-foot screen being a relatively new thing in Romania in 1935, the government decided to ban Mickey Mouse, concerned that children would be terrified of a monstrous rodent.

3. In 1929, a German censor banned a Mickey Mouse short called “The Barnyard Battle.” The reason? An army of cats wearing pickelhauben, the pointed helmets worn by German military in the 19th and 20th centuries: "The wearing of German military helmets by an army of cats which oppose a militia of mice is offensive to national dignity. Permission to exhibit this production in Germany is refused.”

4. The German dislike for Mickey Mouse continued into the mid-'30s, with one German newspaper wondering why such a small and dirty animal would be idolized by children across the world: "Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed ... Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal.” Mickey was originally banned from Nazi Germany, but eventually the mouse's popularity won out.

5. In 2014, Iran's Organization for Supporting Manufacturers and Consumers announced a ban on school supplies and stationery products featuring “demoralizing images,” including that of Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Sleeping Beauty, and characters from Toy Story.

6. In 1954, East Germany banned Mickey Mouse comics, claiming that Mickey was an “anti-Red rebel.”

7. In 1937, a Mickey Mouse adventure was so similar to real events in Yugoslavia that the comic strip was banned. State police say the comic strip depicted a “Puritan-like revolt” that was a danger to the “Boy King,” Peter II of Yugoslavia, who was just 14 at the time. A journalist who wrote about the ban was consequently escorted out of the country.

8. Though Mussolini banned many cartoons and American influences from Italy in 1938, Mickey Mouse flew under the radar. It’s been said that Mussolini’s children were such Mickey Mouse fans that they were able to convince him to keep the rodent around.

9. Mickey and his friends were banned from the 1988 Seoul Olympics in a roundabout way. As they do with many major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, Disney had contacted American favorites to win in each event to ask them to say the famous “I’m going to Disneyland!” line if they won. When American swimmer Matt Biondi won the 100-meter freestyle, he dutifully complied with the request. After a complaint from the East Germans, the tape was pulled and given to the International Olympic Committee.

10. In 1993, Mickey was banned from a place he shouldn't have been in the first place: Seattle liquor stores. As a wonderful opening sentence from the Associated Press explained, "Mickey Mouse, the Easter Bunny and teddy bears have no business selling booze, the Washington State Liquor Control Board has decided." A handful of stores had painted Mickey and other characters as part of a promotion. A Disney VP said Mickey was "a nondrinker."

11. Let's end with another strike against The Shindig (see #1) and Clarabelle’s bulging udder. Less than a year after the Shindig ban, the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America announced that they had received a massive number of complaints about the engorged cow udders in various Mickey Mouse cartoons.

From then on, according to a 1931 article in Time magazine, “Cows in Mickey Mouse ... pictures in the future will have small or invisible udders quite unlike the gargantuan organ whose antics of late have shocked some and convulsed others. In a recent picture the udder, besides flying violently to left and right or stretching far out behind when the cow was in motion, heaved with its panting with the cow stood still.”

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