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31: The Great Iceland Road Trip

Iceland was, in 1809, a very different place than we think of it today. It was still a picturesque, craggy island belching steam and lava from its many geysers and volcanic vents, but far from being a progressive society of generally wealthy people who speak an incomprehensible language and like to eat fermented shark meat, 200 years ago Iceland was one of the poorest and most inhospitable countries in Europe. At the beginning of the Second Decade, William Jackson Hooker, a young English...


Second Decade Off Topic: The White House, Part II

What was the White House really like in the early part of the 19th century? Always under construction, reconstruction, redecoration or renovation, the President’s house was like a child that could never sit still, or like a living organism changing constantly over time. In addition to logistical and domestic details like how the chandeliers worked and when the first toilet flushed within the walls of the Executive Mansion, the story of the White House in these years goes hand-in-hand with...


30: The White House, Part I

Originally built in the 1790s largely with slave labor, from the very beginning the White House was an eerie mirror of American society, including its original sin of slavery. But the house as it was originally constructed stood for only a few years. During the War of 1812, a British strike team sailed up the Potomac and burned the U.S. Capitol and the White House to the ground. This might have been the end of the house’s illustrious history, but it wasn’t. Reconstructed from the ashes...


29: Australia, Part II

Though it started as a convenient dumping ground for Britain’s human refuse, the colony of Australia was not destined to remain a prison forever. Despite the grandiose plans of some of its visionaries, however—like Lachlan Macquarie, Colonial Governor—it would take a great deal of labor, money and innovation if it was ever to rise above its convict roots. Macquarie began with an ambitious program of building and urban design, in the process cheating the British government and Australia’s...


28: Australia, Part I

In the 1810s, the British penal colony of Australia, known then as New South Wales, was barely 20 years old. Already it had sunk into a morass of drunkenness, corruption and hopelessness, even suffering a military coup by the soldiers tasked to keep the unruly convicts in line. There were deep social divisions between the “Emancipists,” freed convicts who hoped to own their own land, and “Exclusives,” white settlers who came voluntarily. This is to say nothing of the tragic effects that...