In early November, I received an event notification in my email: “Presidential Hair: A Close Shave with History.” Speaker Robert McCracken Peck, Academy Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow, was going to provide insight into the hair collection of Peter A. Browne, the subject of his book Specimens of Hair: The Curious Collection of Peter A. Browne. I couldn’t click fast enough to RSVP.A lawyer, Browne became interested in wool and fur, tracking the differences between animals and species across various geographic locales. The next step was human hair. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Browne actively collected human hair samples, including 13 of the first US presidents, famous authors like James Fenimore Cooper, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Browne devoted his life to this project. Before DNA, Browne knew hair was a significant indicator of our identity and that through hair, we could know more about ourselves, as individuals, in addition to the human species. His immense collection, however, would have been tossed in the 1970s had it not been for Peck who stumbled upon the scrapbooks in the hallway of the Academy bound for the trash.

Peck’s book, Specimens of Hair, accounts for the collection through Rosamond Purcell’s stunning photographs and Peck’s rich text. Full of history and analysis, the book is more than just a glance into what many might consider a frivolous oddity, something to ogle and judge. Peck makes the irrefutable case of Browne’s collection being emblematic of 19th-century science, curiosity, and the adventurous spirit of scientific exploration. A week after his talk, Peck was gracious enough to host me in his office at the Academy of Natural Sciences where we discussed Browne’s mission, science literacy and advocacy, and the implications of collecting hair samples. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… “Out of Thin Hair”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.


Busy, busy, busy. So much to do, so many traitors to be shot. You’d think a victorious tyrant would have his hands plenty full in the aftermath of Spain’s murderous 1936-39 civil war. It turns out, though, that Generalissimo Francisco Franco had long nursed a secret desire, one he was uniquely in a position to satisfy at the outset of his nearly four decades in power. But where in the world did he find the time to write the screenplay for a feature-length film? Never mind that the end product is as artistically shoddy and morally repugnant as anything that ever defiled celluloid, it still gives a fascinating peek through the thick velvet curtains that lead to the lobby of a dictator’s mind.

Film-buff Franco didn’t often go to the movies. The movies came to him. On engagement-free Saturday evenings a projectionist would be admitted to the head of state’s residence on the outskirts of Madrid where a screening room had been installed. Ministers on urgent business would be roped into attendance. It went on like that until old age began gnawing at his attention span, decades down the road. Hitler, too, was acutely conscious of the cinema’s potential for manipulating the masses, but left the hands-on part to his deputy, Goebbels. And Mussolini certainly praised the carbon-arc projector as “the world’s most effective weapon.” But his movie producer son, Vittorio, revealed that Il Duce could scarcely make it through 15 minutes of virtually any film you could think of without dozing off. More… “General Franco Jumps the Shark”

Robert Latona is a journalist based in Madrid, Spain.

Jennifer Higdon is an American composer born in Atlanta, Georgia. Her concertos have earned her a Pulitzer Prize for Music and a Grammy Award. Cold Mountain is her first opera, and it was co-commissioned by The Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia. She was reached by phone at her home in Philadelphia. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ML: How is composing for opera different from the composition work you’ve done in the past?

JH: It’s really different, first of all, because you’re trying to take care of actual characters in a story. You have to think about, because opera is over two hours, how you structure something musically so that it’s interesting for the audience. You also have to think about what kind of music depicts these characters. Basically I’m trying to figure out how to draw an aural picture of these people, but it’s really hard. More… “Accented Arias”

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.


Would the United States be better off without the South? It is a question that is often asked by white progressives and centrists in other parts of the country, now that the Democrats have become a largely-Northern party while the former Confederacy has become the heartland of what was once Lincoln’s party. If the Confederacy had been allowed to secede, would what remained — let us call it the Rump USA — be a socially-liberal, civil libertarian, social-democratic paradise today?

Let us ignore, for a moment, the indifference by the white Americans who muse about this scenario to the fate of black Americans, who disproportionately reside in the South to this day, as well as to their fellow victims and sometime victimizers, the white Southern poor. Had they been permanently stranded outside the United States after 1861, neither group would have benefited from federal abolition of slavery, federal civil rights and voting rights legislation, or federally-subsidized economic development in the South.
More… “Without the South”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.


I can’t get over the first two words of the poem: no sleep. No sleep. That’s how Herman Melville began his poem, which is called “The House-top. A Night Piece.” It was written in July of 1863. America was in the midst of the Civil War — really in the thick of it. 

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at

Soon after I began reading Sharon Wilkerson’s new book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which uses ethnography to explore the great migration of African-Americans from the South to Northern cities during the first half of the 20th century, I came face to face with another treatment of this subject during a visit to Washington, D.C. Wandering into the new addition to the Phillips Collection, I was confronted in the first gallery with a set of paintings by Jacob Lawrence entitled “The Migration of the Negro.” I had heard about these paintings, which chronicle the first wave of African-American migration to the North from 1916 to 1919. Stumbling upon them on the wall of this museum, I was dazzled by their expressiveness and power.


But I was also confused. I had read that the Migration paintings were in the… More…

Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s wife Libby may have erected an impressive obelisk headstone for him at the military’s West Point Cemetery in New York, but it is very unlikely that the remains buried below are his. After the battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 — where Custer and 209 of his men were famously killed — a full three days passed before an army burial detail arrived. What they found was not a pretty sight — “a sickening, ghastly field” as General Edward S. Godfrey put it. Family members had removed the bodies of the Indian dead after the battle, but the Seventh cavalrymen had been stripped, scalped, pin-cushioned with arrows, and mutilated by Indian women venting their anger at the army, while the fly-covered corpses were bloated and blackened from three days under the summer Montana sun. Custer was one of the few who had not… More…