The Vault

Introducing The Vault

The Vault is Slate’s brand-new history blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatevault.

Welcome to The Vault, a new blog dedicated to history at its most beautiful, strange, funny, and moving.

Every weekday, we’ll publish one archival document or object of visual and historical interest. Here you’ll find carefully selected photographs, pamphlets, maps, buttons, toys, letters, ledgers, and the occasional lock of hair, along with a bit of explanation to give you some context for what you’re seeing. Just this week we’ll be looking at Benedict Arnold’s loyalty oath, a microscope set for girls of the 1950s, and a memo from a Nixon aide pleading with the president to call the Space Shuttle the Space Clipper instead.

British novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The Vault is on a permanent world tour; consider these objects your souvenirs.

Published by Bain News Service, between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Here to greet you at the entrance to the Vault is one William Charles Flynn, serial winner of “better baby” contests in the 1910s and current resident of the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division. At these contests, meant to encourage eugenic reproduction and modeled on the livestock contests common at state fairs, infants and toddlers were judged against each other on family heredity, height, weight, circumference of head, chest, and abdomen, and length of arm and leg.

After three-year-old William repeatedly won better-baby contests alongside a girl, Alene Calvert Houck, who was a youthful seventeen months, their mothers got together and decided that the two should certainly marry. They told newspapers of their plans, but there’s no evidence that they succeeded in making the match.

Thanks to Scott Snelling for the tip.