Happy Public Domain Day! As of today, works from 1926 have entered the public domain—among them the first Winnie the Pooh book, the first Hercule Poirot book, and the first novel by Ernest Hemingway! This year’s Public Domain Day is special because for the first time literally ever, sound recordings are entering the public domain. You can read more about that and what else is entering PD over on the Duke CSPD.
This year, in celebration of Public Domain Day, I’m reviewing the Public Domain Review. PDR is an online journal which publishes essays concerning art and artifacts in the public domain. They also curate collections of artwork, photographs, and books, some of which they sell prints of. At the start of 2021 they celebrated their tenth anniversary, so they’ve got an extensive backlog—294 essays and 990 collection posts, by their count. Throughout all of 2021, I read every essay they published and perused every collection they showcased, in order to write this review. So I’m going to talk about why Public Domain Review is great, and then recommend some of my favorite posts from the past year.
Firstly, Public Domain Review is great just for being what it is. The public domain is vast. It expands infinitely pastwards. This is exciting, but where do you start? Say, for example, you’re an ES-EN translator, and you want to cut your teeth on a public domain work that hasn’t been translated before. You know plenty of old Spanish books, but they’re the ones that everyone knows, they’re the ones that have already been translated. And you may be familiar with more recent untranslated works, but these are under copyright. (This is why, vast as the public domain is, it is still not vast enough—the stuff that is most recent, most relevant, most likely to be known, is the stuff that is least accessible.)
Or say you are an artist, a graphic designer, and you just collect bits and pieces as you find them, without knowing whether or not you’ll ever use them—how do you keep finding stuff, and stuff that is actually useable?
I once spent many hours going track by track through all the music labeled with CC-BY licenses on the Free Music Archive, picking out tracks I could use in videos or audiobooks. I didn’t even make it through half. I did find a lot of great stuff which I have not heard used anywhere else, but it took a ton of time. Public Domain Review fulfills the invaluable task of curation. Every couple weeks they publish three collections. If you just glance at those and click on the ones you find interesting, you will quickly accumulate tons of open tabs, tons of loose threads to keep pulling on. Crucially, too, the scans are always high-quality, only ever limited by the resolution of the original item (say, a blurry photograph.) No screenshots of screenshots, no DRM plugin that’ll let you zoom and pan but not download, no digging into the metadata of a wikisource page to find a better version—no. Quality scans, up front, ready to download or just appreciate.
And like I said, PDR isn’t bringing you the stuff you’ve already seen. The collections and the essays delight in the forgotten, the ephemeral, the dead-end experiments. What often interests me most is the stuff from everyday life—shinplasters, marginaliac whales, political cartoons. PDR curates this stuff and provides context to understand who exactly would’ve used this book of kimono patterns, why did someone draw these bug-person-nations? The essays provide the most context, but all of the collections also come with a brief, or sometimes substantial, summary. There’s an aesthetic pleasure in looking at the pieces, and an empathic pleasure in imagining how everyday people would’ve encountered them, laughed at them, created them.
If it seems like I’m linking a lot of stuff, it’s because I’m trying to emulate PDR. Every post is interlinked with other posts from the backlog, or linked to external websites hosting similar archives. Public Domain Review has an old-school internet vibe in that sense, encouraging you to click deeper and deeper, following your own whims as far as you want. You’re never gonna hit a paywall, your brain will never be hijacked by a little red dot with a number in it, you’ll never even see an ad!
That interlinking is really foundational to PDR as a whole—the essays are all about synthesis, gathering materials from different time periods, different artistic disciplines, and bringing them to bear on the central topic. The apotheosis of this tendency, at least from the past year, is the essay “The Dust That Measures All Our Time,” which is about sand. Read it, it’s a trip. The PDR Press, which publishes original books, is also at work on an enormous art book called Affinities which collects 500 public domain images “in a single captivating sequence which unfurls according to a dreamlike logic.” I’m very eager to get my hands on one.
One final caveat: PDR is essentially historically-focused. There’s very little in the way of contemporary works (e.g., works that are public domain because they’re government works.) PDR doesn’t post essays about the value of the public domain, it just celebrates, and tries to expand digital access to, what is already there. It also skews European, I think largely because that is what is best archived and digitized, and partly because it is an anglophone publication. A more global scope, and the occasional acknowledgement of PD works past the 1920s, are two areas for improvement I would love to see from the Public Domain Review in their second decade.
And now, what you’ve all been waiting for: Top ten lists! Actually one top ten and one top five list. I’ll start with my favorite collections.
- The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich (1909) — Okay so this is not actually from 2021 but I came across it this year and I just love it so it takes the #11 spot. A book full of very short sandwich recipes. Fun to peruse. Some strange ones in here.
- Theresa Babb’s Photographs of Friendship (ca. 1898) — Lovely to see photographs from 122 years ago where the subjects are not sternly posed. Not truly candid, but very playful and expressive. Some cats in there too. Cute!
- A Book of Stone: Adam Wirsing’s Marmora (1776) — This is a genre of PDR collection: books which served as sampler catalogs for things like silks, kimonos, carpets, etc. This is a book of marble, each type painted in a little square. Rich colors. Quick read ;).
- Festooned: Martin Gerlach’s Decorative Groupings (1897) — Bizzarre! Photos from “a reference manual meant for inspiring artists and artisans designing plaster, textile, wallpaper, and wood,” but the reference objects are arranged in surprising combinations. Not just plants with plants, birds with birds, no. Look at one image and you just keep spotting things that do not belong. Dadaist I Spy.
- Snowball Fights in Art (1400-1946) — Seasonally appropriate, in the northern hemisphere at least. Snowball fights are timeless. Fun.
- Visualizing History: The Polish System — Fascinating review of a totally alien way of recording and teaching history. Would be a neat project to try to draw some of these up, or use it for fictional world-building. Some of the grids look lovely as abstract compositions.
- Solid Objects: 16th-Century Geometric and Perspective Drawings — r/oddlysatisfying in the 1500s. A book of lushly colored geometrical forms, some quite complex. Pure aesthetic pleasure. Check out the other linked collections too!
- John Uri Lloyd’s Etidorhpa (1895) — Have not read the book but wow! those! illustrations! Superb control of light and shadow, everything voluminous and real. Lots of simple, powerful composition. And totally nightmarish subjects. “This Struggling Ray of Sunlight Is To Be Your Last for Years.”
- Visualizing Migraines: The Attempts of Hubert Airy and Others to Depict Scintillating Scotomata — A survey of several different illustrations of “scotomata”—the hallucinations induced by certain migraines, which appear like the walls of a star fort. Cool to see something so subjective as a hallucination reproduced by multiple people, and taking the same form each time. Air’s drawings are the most striking.
- A Modest Apology for the Man in the Bottle (1749) — LMAOO. 1749, London. The Bottle Conjurer charges people to see him fit himself into a bottle. People buy tickets, go to see it. Guy never shows up. People get pissed, riot. Afterward, shitposts (i.e. little poems and woodcut prints) about the legendary bottleman proliferate.
- Joseph George Strutt’s Sylva Britannica (1822/1830) — This one really got to me. Sylva Britannica is a book celebrating the oldest and most venerable trees of Britain, illustrated with gorgeous, finely detailed etchings. It got to me because Strutt’s love of the trees, the grandeur of these trees, and the sublimity of trees in general, is so palpable in the descriptions and illustrations. From Strutt: “An insulated tree… seems the common property of all who raise their humble tenements within sight of its branches, and is one of the delightful ornaments of nature that the poorest cottager may enjoy and be proud of, as he sees the stranger stop to gaze at it.” This vision of trees as a common inheritance, as the higher beings which have watched famine, plague, war, riot, festival, commerce, watched generations born and dead again and again—well it’s a powerful notion, and every one of these illustrations drives it home. This is, I think, the longest collection post this year, because rather than just presenting a gallery of the illustrations, the curator has pulled quotes for each image. They have also provided updates on some of the trees, many of which are still standing.
Now, here are my favorite essays:
- Reading Like a Roman: Vergilius Vaticanus and the Puzzle of Ancient Book Culture, by Alex Tadel — The focus is the Vergilius Vaticanus, an extremely well-preserved illustrated codex, one of the only ones we have, from late antiquity. Around this focal point, Tadel discusses the reading culture of ancient Rome, the way texts were copied and preserved by scribes, and the cultural role of the Aeneid throughout history. I always love reading about how people interacted with books differently, or quite similarly, centuries and centuries ago, and this essay provides that and more.
- “The Mark of the Beast”: Georgian Britain’s Anti-Vaxxer Movement, by Erica X Eisen — Nothing new under the sun. Eisen writes captivatingly about the invention of the smallpox vaccine and the passionate backlash against it. Some truly bizarre, body-horror illustrations here.
- Black America, 1895, by Dorothy Berry — A historical reenactment of a southern antebellum plantation, staged in Brooklyn in 1895. We can learn so much about societies in history by how they viewed history, and Berry thoroughly probes this question: how did white northerners, three decades after emancipation, conceptualize the southern plantation,? Berry goes deeper, though, detailing the lives of the various performers, who were actually Black, not white actors in blackface. What opportunities did Black America present to them? Fascinating bit of history, thoroughly researched.
- Photographing the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, by Karlos K. Hill — Describes the history of Black Wall Street and the Tulsa race massacre, worth reading on its own, but what is so striking is that the extensive photographic record of the event was taken by members of the white mob: “… the sheer number of these photos is illustrative of how photographing brutal acts of anti-Black violence had become an important social ritual in early-twentieth-century America.” Many of the photos are cruelly captioned, making clear the sympathies of the photographer. Hill explores this “social ritual,” (which he has written more about in his books), the culture of racism, and the historic, societal value that these photos still have despite their evil originators.
- Marxist Astronomy: The Milky Way According to Anton Pannekoek, by Lauren Collee — “In a communist society all will partake of scientific knowledge. In capitalist society it is the privilege and the speciality of a separate class, the intellectual middle class.” Anton Pannekoek wrote that in “The Intellectuals” in 1935. He was an astronomer himself, and though he understood the connection between capital and science, he rejected this as being natural, rejected the idea that science could only be a tool to further exploit workers and enrich the bourgeoisie. In fact, as Collee explains, he believed that the principals of Marxism could be applied to astronomy. This belief was exemplified by his drawings of the Milky Way based not on the emerging field of astrophotography, but on the observations of several individuals, combined and averaged to form a “mean subjective image” of the sky. Collee does a great job explaining all this, placing Pannekoek in the context of astronomy and communist thought, and finding the seam between the two. The images are strange, beautiful, compelling. The ideas even more so.
Before closing things out, I must mention the Conjectures series, which I would describe as similar to the essays but more experimental in form. These are posted irregularly (only three this year), so I don’t have too much to say on them, except I’d love to see more. I think this essay about waves by Melissa McCarthy best exemplifies the series, though they are all quite eclectic, so it can’t be exemplified at all.
If you’d like to support the Public Domain Review, there are a couple ways to donate here. If you set up a yearly donation of at least $30, you’ll get packs of postcards with public domain prints sent to you twice a year, and 10% off purchases of prints from the PDR shop. You could also support them just by buying one of those prints, or purchasing a book from PDR Press. I can’t speak to the qualities of these prints or books, but the postcards are quite nice, so you gotta figure the bigger items are too.
As usual, this year I’ve ceded one of my own works to the public domain, which you can read more about here!
Also I’ve been keeping this tradition for five years now!, so I figured I’d set up a page for it with links to all my Public Domain Day posts, and all my works in the public domain.