A Cabinet of Conundrums: An 1846 List of Proposed “Curiosities” for the Smithsonian Institution

by Leslie Myrick and Martha Rust

In July 1836 the United States Congress was the contingent beneficiary of a $500,000 bequest made by English scientist James Smithson (1765-1829) for the establishment of a new National Museum in Washington, D. C. to be known as the Smithsonian Institution. Smithson, the illegitimate son of Hugh Percy, the first Duke of Northumberland, never married and named a nephew as heir to his considerable fortune. When the nephew died without issue six years after Smithson’s death in Genoa in 1829, the bequest was duly transferred to Congress for the foundation of an American National Museum. A museum, as noted in our recent post “L’allure de liste,” can be a site that both contains list-like arrangements of objects and inspires written lists of the same. In the case of the Smithsonian museum, a curious list of proposed objects suggests that the list form itself could be the subject of a museum exhibition.

Continue reading “A Cabinet of Conundrums: An 1846 List of Proposed “Curiosities” for the Smithsonian Institution”

“Piles of most beautiful bacon”: Lists of Jettisoned Goods on the 1849 Oregon Trail

by Leslie Myrick

In a previous post, I examined outfitting and provisioning lists compiled by travelers in preparation for their trek along the northern route to California in 1849, the opening season of the rush for Californian gold. Those going by ox- or mule-drawn wagon (as opposed to by pack mule) were particularly prone to overpacking, and thus overburdening their stock. Guidebooks and previous travelers to the west recommended a load limit of 2500 pounds per wagon, but the exigencies of travel over muddy or sandy roads and unbridged rivers made the lightening of loads necessary, sometimes as early as the first day out of camp. Continue reading ““Piles of most beautiful bacon”: Lists of Jettisoned Goods on the 1849 Oregon Trail”

What is a List?

by Martha Rust

A list
is a list
is a list …

In his New York Times essay “The Joy of Lists,” Arthur Krystal explains that as a list “purist,” he is of the belief that “a list should aspire to ‘listhood.’” A “true list,” he goes on to say, “ought to at least look like a list.”[1] Krystal doesn’t specify what that look is, but does he need to? When we picture a list in our minds, most of us probably see a column of words or short phrases. Words or phrases arranged vertically, often accompanied by dots or numbers: this is the iconic list, the look of “listhood.” While what a list looks like may thus go without saying, it begs a question that is more difficult to answer: What is it about a list that causes it to be so closely associated with a specific visual form? Or put more simply, what is a list? The following is a list of imaginative answers to that question drawn from a survey of writers writing about lists. As they suggest, whatever lists are, there is much more to them than words. Continue reading “What is a List?”

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