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Hannah Keyser

11 Awesome Things You Can See At The Explorers Club

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Hannah Keyser

The Explorers Club headquarters on East 70th Street might be New York's best kept secret. In spirit and purpose, it is the meeting place and physical center for an international association of scientists and explorers. In aesthetics, it resembles a Jacobean manor house crossed with a natural history museum, complete with wood paneled walls, elaborate molding, and a terrace marked by a colonnade from a monastery in France that matches the one in the Cloisters.

The Club first met in 1904 as an unofficial gathering of like-minded men (women weren't allowed until 1981). By the following year, the Explorers Club was incorporated, though it bounced around several locations—first on the Lower East Side and then up by Columbia University—before ending up at its current location in 1965. The house was originally built in 1910 for Stephen Clark, heir of the Singer Sewing machine fortune, with the intention of mimicking a historical style. Clark lived there with his family until he passed away in 1960. Five years later, the entire multistory townhouse was purchased for the Club with the help of member Lowell Thomas.

These days, the Club serves as a fellowship that awards grants and provides a social and professional network for continuing generations of explorers. Entry into that network, which includes dozens of chapters around the world, requires a background of extensive travel and a number of recommendations from current members. The house retains certain functions of its own: Members give lectures on their research and travel; relevant films are shown; and independent organizations from charities to documentary filmmakers make use of the stunning setting. The Club invites passersby, perhaps intrigued by the heavy iron doors or the personalized flag, to pop in and get a feel for the place. But those interested in getting a closer look, either at any of the objects mentioned here or the vast research collection of exploration documents, should make an appointment with the Club's curator, Lacey Flint.

1. USS Explorer Table

One of the first remarkable artifacts in the Club is hidden in plain sight. A sumptuous sitting room centers around a heavy wooden coffee table with a rich history. It's built from a hatch cover for the USS Explorer, an unarmed research vessel that was one of only seven ships in the area to survive the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time of the bombing, the Explorer was out to sea—in fact, it was the nearest American ship to the Japanese fleet responsible—which was how it was spared a violent end.

2. Dowager Empress Chair

In the same room as the table above is a chair with royal origins. Not much is known about the intricately-carved wooden seat, but it is rumored to have belonged to Empress Wanrong, the wife of Puyi, last Emperor of China.

3. Matthew Henson's Mittens

Matthew Henson, who became the first African American admitted to the Club in 1937, was Robert Peary's first mate on a number of arctic explorations, including the one recognized as the first to reach the geographic North Pole. The Club displays sealskin mittens with polar bear cuffs made for Henson by an Inuit woman who accompanied them on their voyage. On the gloves is inscribed: Matthew A Henson, May 5, 1934… To -- Explorers Club … worn by me from Cape Sheridan to it -- North Pole, April 6, 1909.

4. Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki Globe

In 1947, Club member Thor Heyerdahl wanted to prove that early South Americans could have originally settled the islands of the South Pacific as far back as 500 AD. Heyerdahl set sail with a 5-man crew from Peru aboard a raft, called the Kon-Tiki, made of balsa logs and other indigenous materials and techniques consistent with what would have been available at that time. One hundred and one days and 4300 miles later, the team landed in Polynesia. The expedition was first proposed and partially planned using this globe, which was at the time located in the Explorers Club headquarters on West 72nd Street.

5. Albert Operti's Rescue at Camp Clay

In 1881, Adolphus W. Greely—a decorated Civil War veteran who would become the Explorers Club's first president in 1905—set off with a crew of 24 men to explore the arctic reaches of Canada. The so-called Lady Franklin Bay Expedition made numerous scientific contributions and observations, reaching farther north than anyone before them. However, during the expedition, heavy ice stranded the explorers and prevented relief vessels from reaching them for several years. By the time a rescue ship found the crew on June 22, 1884 at Cape Sabine on Ellesmere Island, two-thirds had succumbed to starvation, exposure, scurvy, drowning, suicide, and even execution. And, in the aftermath, the survivors were plagued by rumors of cannibalism.

The painting, commissioned by the U.S. government to hang in the Capitol Building, depicts a scene of the rescue. Artist Albert Operti did extensive research, interviewing the survivors as well as those who were part of the rescue team for details about the tents and other materials. He even studied pre-expedition portraits of the deceased crew members. The Club purchased the painting in 1946 for $105.00.

6. Bell from the Bear

The Bear was a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter that was part of a three-ship mini fleet responsible for finding and rescuing Greely's surviving crew. The bell was presented to the Club in 1933 and since then has traditionally been rung to mark the start of Club functions.

7. Mariana Trench/Mount Everest Flag

The Club's flag is an iconic part of its tradition. Each flag produced is assigned a number, and members must apply for the honor of carrying one on their expeditions, submitting a thesis-style report to be included in the flag's file upon return. A database tracks all of the flags' voyages; often, explorers who have been granted the privilege seek one that has been to similar locations or was carried by an idol. On the occasion of some particularly admirable voyage, or because of damage sustained, flags are retired to be part of the rotating collection on display in the Club. The Flag Room provides a sense of the Club's wide-ranging purview in the world of exploration and notable historical events—the Apollo 13 Flag was returned unopened in the non-flammable plastic casing in which it was packed, with a note explaining that since "plans were disrupted" it was never planted on the moon's surface.

Not all explorers opt for flags that have been to similar locations—in fact, an instance of just the opposite created a unique artifact. Flag 161 accompanied 19 voyages during its active tenure from 1955 to 2012. Among those was a trip to the top of Mount Everest, and the last one was a descent with James Cameron to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger. Along with a host of other accomplishments, this means that Flag 161 is the only object in the world to have traveled to both the highest and lowest points on the planet.

8. Yeti Scalp

Or, more accurately put, "yeti scalp." Tales of an abominable snowman called the Yeti inspired Explorers Club members Sir Edmund Hillary and Marlin Perkins to travel to Nepal in 1960. Among the evidence for this mythical monster cited by locals was a supposed scalp, which had been housed at a temple in Khumjung for over 200 years. Unfortunately for Yeti enthusiasts everywhere, Perkins, a zoologist, concluded that the "scalp" was made from the hide of a Himalayan serow—a goat antelope. To substantiate this claim, he had a local villager help to create an exact replica using goat hide, which is what you see here.

9. Description de l'Égypte

Despite suffering an ignominious military defeat in Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign up the Nile in 1798-99 provided the world with one of the most important documents in Egyptology. Along with his army, Napoleon brought nearly 200 scholars and scientists known as savants to compile ethnographic information about ancient and modern Egypt. The result was 22 volumes called Description de l'Égypte, ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l'expédition de l'armée française. Or in English: Description of Egypt, or the collection of observations and research which were made in Egypt during the expedition of the French Army. The texts are, of course, written in French, but the oversized volumes that include hand-colored pictures are stunning and worth a few more pictures. Definitely call or email ahead if you're hoping for a peek—these first editions require white gloves and supervision for handling.

10. Double Elephant Tusk

These four tusks all belonged to the same elephant, a fearsome looking rare genetic mutation. The tusks were collected by Club member Armand Denis, an adventurer and filmmaker who led a famous expedition across Africa in 1934, but they were donated by the estate of Sally H. Clark, wife of James L. Clark, who served as Director for Preparations at the American Museum of Natural History.

11. Stuffed Whale Penis

Not much is know about this stuffed whale penis, which was given to the Club in 1977 by Mr. and Mrs. Frederick S. Schauffler, but it is a favorite among visitors. Worth checking out, if only for a better sense of scale.

All photos courtesy of Hannah Keyser

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This Newspaper Article Was Hyping the 2017 Eclipse All the Way Back in 1932
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If you’ve turned on a news station or browsed the internet recently, you’ve likely learned of the total solar eclipse set to pass over the U.S. on Monday, August 21. Many outlets (Mental Floss included) have been talking up the event for months, but the earliest instance of hype surrounding the 2017 eclipse may have come from The New York Times.

Meteorologist Joe Rao presented this news clip at a recent panel on the solar eclipse at the American Museum of Natural History, and fuel analyst Patrick DeHaan shared the image on Twitter earlier this year. It shows a New York Times article from August 1932, selling that year’s eclipse by saying it will be the "best until Aug. 21, 2017."

The total solar eclipse on August 21 won’t be the first to fall over U.S. soil in 85 years. The next one to follow the 1932 eclipse came in 1970, but an author at the time apparently predicted that "poor skies" would be likely for that date. That early forecast turned out to be correct: There were clouds over much of the path of totality in the southeastern U.S. The next total eclipse visible from America, which the article doesn’t mention, happened in 1979. Overcast skies were a problem for at least some of the people trying to view it that time around as well.

The upcoming total eclipse will hopefully be worth the decades of hype. Unlike the previous three, which only skimmed small sections of the lower 48 states, this next eclipse will be visible throughout day as it travels from coast to coast. Check out our field guide for preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

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10 of the Worst Jobs in the Victorian Era
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Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.

1. LEECH COLLECTOR

Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to "hysteria." But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collectors’ legs, the individual would prise them off and collect them in a box or pot. Leeches can survive for up to a year with no food, so they could be stored at the pharmacy to be dished out as required. Unsurprisingly, leech collectors were in danger of suffering from excess blood loss and infectious diseases.

2. PURE FINDER

Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as "pure" because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.

3. TOSHER

A Victorian illustration of a tosher, or sewer collector
An 1851 illustration of a sewer-hunter or "tosher."
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Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. Toshers made their living down in the dark sewers, sifting through raw sewage to find any valuables that had fallen down the drain. It was extremely dangerous work: noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was a lucrative business for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.

4. MATCHSTICK MAKERS

Matchsticks are made by cutting wood into thin sticks and then dipping the ends into white phosphorus—a highly toxic chemical. In the Victorian era, this work was mainly performed by teenage girls who worked in terrible conditions, often for between 12 and 16 hours a day with few breaks. The girls were forced to eat at their work stations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the dreadful condition known as “phossy jaw”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.

5. MUDLARK

Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.

6. CHIMNEY SWEEP

A photograph of a very happy chimney sweep
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Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.

7. FUNERAL MUTE

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.

8. RAT CATCHER

An illustration of a group of Victorian men watching rat-baiting.
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Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor disease, but their bites could cause terrible infections. One of the most famous Victorian rat catchers was Jack Black, who worked for Queen Victoria herself. Black was interviewed for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which he revealed that he used a cage which could store up to 1000 live rats at a time. The rats could be stored like this for days as long as Black fed them—if he forgot the rats would begin fighting and eating each other, ruining his spoils.

9. CROSSING SWEEPER

The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.

10. RESURRECTIONISTS

An 1840 drawing of a group of resurrectionists at work
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In the early 19th century the only cadavers available to medical schools and anatomists were those of criminals who had been sentenced to death, leading to a severe shortage of bodies to dissect. Medical schools paid a handsome fee to those delivering a body in good condition, and as a result many wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.

The "profession" was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed victims to their boarding house, plied them with alcohol and then suffocated them, ensuring the body stayed in good enough condition to earn the fee paid by Edinburgh University medical school for corpses. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their body to medical science.

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