Microhistories: Sating Our Curiosity One Book at a Time

by Jocelyn R.

Sometimes kids go through a phase where “why” is their favorite question. But kids aren’t the only ones who like to ask that question. Some of us adults also seek knowledge about the world by asking why, and wondering how things came to be the way they are. Luckily for us, others also wonder about the world and write books to help us sate our curiosity. These books are known as microhistories. According to the dictionary, a microhistory is a study or account of the history of a very specific subject.

Want to learn more about how sugar became such a popular spice? Check out Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos. Is science your jam? You might enjoy learning more of the stories behind the periodic table’s creation in The Disappearing Spoon, And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of Elements. Perhaps you’ve wondered when Pyrex was invented or why someone thought to create the Slinky. In that case, you would want to take a look at Andy Warner’s graphic novel, Brief Histories of Everyday Objects or Really Useful: The Origins of Everyday Things by Joel Levy.

If you are looking for some interesting microhistories, take a look at this list or read on for a few of my favorites.

Poop Happened! A History of the World From the Bottom Up – Sarah Albee
The most successful civilizations were the ones who realized that everyone poops and they’d better figure out how to get rid of it! From the very first flushing toilet (invented way earlier than you would think) to the efficient Roman aqueducts (possibly inspired by the goddess of sewers!) to castles in the Middle Ages whose moats used more than just water to repel enemies, “Poop Happened!” traces human civilization through this revolting yet fascinating theme.

Face Paint: The Story of Makeup – Lisa Eldridge
Make-up, as we know it, has only been commercially available in the last 100 years, but applying decoration to the face and body may be one of the oldest global social practices. Lisa Eldridge, one of the world’s foremost make-up artists–with a very large and loyal public following of her own–has written the first real history of the subject. “Face Paint” explores the reasons behind make-up’s use, the actual materials employed and manufactured through the ages, the icons that people emulate and how they achieved their effects, the impact on women’s lives and the present and future of make-up from high profile practitioners and artists to cosmetic breakthroughs. Along with the glamorous trappings, this is also about women’s history and the ways in which we can understand their story through the prism of make-up.

The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History – Katherine Ashenburg
The question of cleanliness is one every age and culture has answered with confidence. What could be more routine than taking up soap and water and washing yourself? And yet cleanliness, or the lack of it, is intimately connected to ideas as large as spirituality and sexuality, and historical events that include plagues, the Civil War, and the discovery of germs. For the first-century Roman, being clean meant a two-hour soak in baths of various temperatures, scraping the body with a miniature rake, and a final application of oil. For the aristocratic Frenchman in the seventeenth century, it meant changing your shirt once a day and perhaps going so far as to dip your hands in some water. Katherine Ashenburg takes on this fascinating topic in her charming tour of attitudes to hygiene through time.

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One response to “Microhistories: Sating Our Curiosity One Book at a Time”

  1. Emily Z says:

    I loved Warner’s book, especially the story about Cinnamon https://electricliterature.com/a-brief-history-of-cinnamon-sticks-a-comic-by-andy-warner-92d619f427ee and I’m def checking out the Face Paint book! And plucked! Hygiene is weird!

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