United States

Apply for a Writer’s Residence at the Mall of America

Many writer’s retreats provide a respite from the hustle and bustle of the world, offering private time (often with famous instructors) to work in remote, beautiful places. For writers who aren’t inspired by incredible natural vistas, though, there are other options. Like, for instance, spending five days inside the Mall of America.

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the opening of the country’s biggest mall, the Mall of America is looking for a writer-in-residence. According to the Mall:

“The Writer-in-Residence Contest will give a special scribe the chance to spend five days deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere while writing on-the-fly impressions in their own words. The contest winner will stay in…

WWI Centennial: U.S. Breaks Off Relations With Germany

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 265th installment in the series.

February 3, 1917: U.S. Breaks Off Relations With Germany

Germany’s fateful decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, 1917, allowing U-boat commanders to sink unarmed neutral vessels without warning, sent shockwaves around the world after it was publicly announced on the last day of January. Coming close on the heels of President Wilson’s offer to host peace talks, the new U-boat campaign was a slap in the face to the United States, which had twice threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Germany over this precise issue; there was now no way to avoid an open breach, setting the stage for America’s entry into the war.

This wasn’t for lack of effort by Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to America, who frantically tried to persuade Berlin to delay the U-boat campaign, dispatching a flurry of secret telegrams up to the very last moment. On January 26, 1917 he sent a message marked “Most urgent,” asking to be allowed time to consider Wilson’s proposals, or at least give the appearance of doing so:

After having had very important conference request most urgently postponement till my next two messages received… To begin U-boat war without previous negotiations regarding above proposals would among other things put us seriously in the wrong, and owing to Wilson’s personal sensitiveness, would make prevention of rupture quite impossible.

The following day, January 27, Bernstorff again warned Berlin:

If the U-boat campaign is opened now with any further ado, the President will regard this as a smack in the face, and war with the United States will be inevitable. The war party here will gain the upper hand, and the end of the war will be quite out of sight, as, whatever people may say to the contrary, the resources of the United States are enormous… At present, therefore, it is only a matter of postponing the declaration for a little while so that we may improve our diplomatic position.

On January 29, however, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg brushed off Bernstorff’s warnings with the breezy assertion that Wilson’s proposal for peace negotiations came too late:

If his offer had only reached us a few days earlier, we should have been able to postpone opening of the new U-boat war. Now, however, in spite of the best will in the world, it is, owing to technical reasons, unfortunately too late, as far-reaching military preparations have already been made which cannot be undone, and U-boats have…

Name That American Island

The following article is from the new book Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader.

(Image credit: Ken Curtis)

Did you know that there are 18,617 named islands in the U.S. and its territories? Neither did we! Here are some interesting stories behind the names of some of those islands.

STATEN ISLAND

In 1609, English explorer Henry Hudson, sailing under a Dutch flag, sailed into New York Bay. (He wasn’t the first European to explore the region; that honor goes to Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who discovered it in 1524.) Hudson named the large island on the southwest side of the bay Staaten Eylandt, literally “States Island,” after the Dutch parliament, known as the Staaten-Generaal. When the English took over the region in 1667, and made it part of their New York Colony, the name was anglicized to Staten Island.

(Image credit: Dan Dugan Sound Design)

Bonus fact: Staten Island wasn’t its official name until 1975. In 1683, the British divided the New York Colony into ten counties, and designated Staten Island as Richmond County, after Charles Lennox, the son of England’s King Charles II, and first Duke of Richmond. When Staten Island was incorporated into New York City in 1898 as one of its five boroughs, its official name was the Borough of Richmond—and that remained its name until 1975, when the city council finally changed it to the Borough of Staten Island.

LONG ISLAND

(Image credit: Jsayre64)

Just east of Staten Island, across a channel known as the Narrows that separates Lower New York Bay from Upper New York Bay (where the Statue of Liberty is located), lies Long Island. Like Staten Island, it was named by the Dutch in the early 17th century. They called it Lange Eylandt, meaning, of course, “Long Island.” It’s 118 miles long by 23 miles wide at its widest point, making it the longest (and largest) island in the contiguous United States. It’s also the most populous island in any state or territory, with more than 7.8 million residents.

KODIAK

(Image credit: James Brooks)

Kodiak Island is about 250 miles southeast of Anchorage, off the east coast of Alaska’s Aleutian Peninsula. It’s been home to the Alutiiq people for more than 3,000 years. And it’s huge. At 3,595 square miles, Kodiak is the second-largest island in the United States (after Hawaii), and the 80th largest in the world. The island was first encountered by Europeans in 1763, when Russian fur trader Stephan Glotov arrived there. He called it Kad’yak, a derivation of kikhtak, the native Aleut word for “island.” The island became the center of the Russian fur trade, but the name didn’t spread beyond the Russian trading community until 1778, when English explorer Captain James Cook arrived and made the first known written notation of the word “Kodiak.”

HAWAII

(Image credit: Diego Delso)

According to traditional folklore, the largest of the Hawaiian islands was named after Hawai’iloa, a legendary seafaring hero who discovered and then colonized them. (He was from a land called Ka-aina-kaimelemele-a-Kane, meaning “the land of the yellow sea of Kane.”) According to the same folklore, the names of the next three largest islands in the Hawaiian chain—Kauai, Oahu, and Maui—come from the names of Hawai’iloa’s sons. But according to linguists, “Hawaii” is similar to words found in other Polynesian languages—including Maori and Samoan—that mean something along the lines of “homeland,” and “Hawaii” probably once had that same meaning.

Bonus Fact: The Hawaiian word lulu means “calm,” and the name of Hawaii’s capital city, Honolulu, means “calm port.”

MARTHA’S VINEYARD

(Image credit: Arwcheek)

Martha’s Vineyard is a small island (25 miles…

Learn Why The Lincoln Administration Turned Down a Chance to Populate the United States With Elephants

When a new president takes office, it’s normal to get showered with diplomatic greetings, gifts, and political overtures. But when Abraham Lincoln’s administration moved into the White House, they turned down what could have been the greatest gift of all: the chance to populate the United States with wild elephants.

In 1861, Lincoln received a pile of swag from King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut of the country then known as Siam. You might know him better for his role in the hit musical The King and I, which fictionalized his relationship with English governess Anna Leonowens. What is true is that Mongkut was eager to “get to know” the West better—during his reign, he managed to open up and begin modernizing Siam.

The gesture wasn’t actually meant for Lincoln: In fact, Mongkut had sent the presents to “whomsoever the people have elected anew as chief ruler in place of President Buchanan.” He sent along a pile of lavish gifts, from a precious handmade sword to photos of himself and his daughter to two gigantic elephant tusks. But much more meaningful was the king’s offer to send along a generous stock of elephants that could be bred on American soil.

It’s no wonder Mongkut offered that gift: Pachyderms were not only native to what is now Thailand, but were also prized as important and valuable…

A Look at the 10 Most Important Maps in U.S. History

Michael Blanding is the author of The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps.

America was made out of pieces of paper. There are the pieces we all know about—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Then there are those lesser-known sheets of paper on which the changing features and borders of our country were drawn.

Maps have played a crucial role, ever since the discovery of the New World, in publicizing the discoveries of explorers, altering perceptions of control, and refereeing the claims of competing powers in finally setting the shape of the United States of America. It’s not too strong a statement to say that without these pieces of paper, the United States as we know it would never have existed—or else, it would look radically different today. Here are 10 of the most important maps in making the dream of our nation a reality.

1. Henricus Martellus // “Untitled [Map of the world of Christopher Columbus].” Manuscript Map, 1489.

Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University

When Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World in 1492, he did it with a map in hand—this one, or one very much like it. Only two copies survive of this map, drawn by German cartographer Heinrich Hammer, who Latinized his name in the fashion of the day to Henricus Martellus Germanus. They have the distinction of being the most complete picture of the world as Columbus and his contemporaries saw it. In fact, Columbus may never have set sail at all if it weren’t for the story that the map told, a story that ultimately would be proven false.

Some background: No educated person in Columbus’ day really thought the earth was flat—the Greeks had determined it was round more than a millennium before. And some Greek astronomers and mathematicians had even accurately calculated the earth’s circumference at 25,000 miles. But Martellus relied on the wrong mathematicians, who calculated the circumference at only 18,000 miles. He also dramatically extended the length of Asia to 7000 miles longer than it actually is—making it seem like a quick trip sailing west across the ocean from Europe to Japan. That gave Columbus the confidence to argue to Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella that a western route to the Spice Islands was not only doable, but would also be easier than sailing around Africa. Of course, as we now know, that wasn’t the case, as Columbus found when he ran smack into another continent in the way. So confident was Columbus in his map that he died believing he’d found Asia—when really he’d found a new continent entirely.

2. Martin Waldseemüller // “Universalis Cosmographia Secundum Ptholomaei Traditionem et Americi Vespucii Alioru[m]que Lustrationes.” St. Die, 1507.

The most expensive map ever purchased, this map was sold to the Library of Congress in 1989—for a cool $10 million. Why the fuss? The entire value can be traced to one word that appears on this map for the first time in history: America. Even though Columbus got there first, Christopher never claimed to have discovered a new continent. By contrast, a self-promoting Italian sailor named Amerigo Vespucci loudly declared to anyone who would listen that he had discovered a new continent on his voyages west from Portugal—and in a pamphlet, he described the native inhabitants in intimate detail. “Everyone of both sexes goes about naked,” he wrote, continuing that “the women… although they go naked and are exceedingly lustful, still have rather shapely and clean bodies.”

Such titillating prose ensured a wide distribution for his pamphlets, which eventually fell into the hands of a young German mapmaker, Martin Waldseemüller. He, in turn, was putting together a new atlas of the world that included a sliver of land in the west that was beginning to show up on Portuguese charts. For the first time, Waldseemüller surrounded that sliver completely by water, and reasoning that all of the other continents were named after women, he feminized Amerigo’s first name to create the name “America” to describe it.

Unfortunately, doubts started appearing almost immediately about whether Vespucci had even been on a voyage, much less whether he’d discovered a new continent, and in later editions of his map, Waldseemüller took the name off of the new land, calling it merely “Terra Incognita” instead. But the name had already stuck, giving us the name of our continent, and our country, today.

3. Captain John Smith // “New England.” London, 1616.

Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

We all know John Smith from his role in founding the Virginia Colony—and for his role along with Pocahontas as one half of America’s original “power couple.” But after he was drummed out of Virginia for reasons best not gone into here, Smith had a second act exploring the area then known as “North Virginia.” Smith figured it needed a catchier moniker, so he branded it “New England,” both to separate it from the southern colony that spurned him and to tell other European countries “hands off.”

Of course, John Smith also wanted to claim it for John Smith, and so he included a giant portrait of himself taking up a corner of the map, which he used to illustrate a book about the new lands he’d discovered. (In later editions of the map, he even updated the portrait, making his beard fuller and bushier.) More brazenly, in order to claim the territory for England, he offered the map to the crown prince Charles and asked him to change the names of all of the native villages to names of English towns—creating a fictional geography that might entice colonists to found such towns for real. Most of those names have since fallen by the wayside—but one has survived. When the Pilgrims sailed from Plymouth in 1620, they did so with a copy of Smith’s map in hand, steering their way to an attractive harbor that Smith had coincidentally named “Plimouth.” Upon arrival, they took the name for their own, and there it remains on the map to this day.

4. Guillaume De L’Isle // “Carte De La Louisiane et du Cours du Mississipi.” Paris, 1718.

The English may have claimed New England, but the rest of the continent was still very much up for grabs throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries—and the French decided they wanted a piece of it. In fact, as this map shows, they wanted a big piece of it.

An early example of cartographic propaganda, this map plays fast and loose with borders to claim virtually all of North America for the French, splashing “La Louisiane” in big letters across the continent’s midsection, and squeezing the English colonies almost entirely off the page. It even claims “Caroline” was named for the French king Charles IX, not the English kings Charles I and Charles II.

This was no idle threat—at the time, Guillaume de l’Isle was arguably the greatest mapmaker of his age, employing new scientific methods to more exactly survey the land, and his map was much more accurate than any English maps at the time. When the English saw it, they were incensed, no doubt fuming about French audacity, and British mapmakers began producing maps of their own that exaggerated English claims in North America at the expense of their enemies across the channel. That spurred the French to produce more…

Here’s Some Russian Travel Tips for Visiting America

Here are some things Russians think other Russians who are preparing to visit the U.S. should know.

1. Don’t Worry About Bringing Gifts to Americans …

Gift giving isn’t a big deal to Americans. In fact, according to the site Деловой этикет по-американски, “Americans do not expect them. On the contrary, an unexpected gift while conducting business can put an American in an awkward position. Such things for Americans suggest reciprocity.” But not all gifts will make Americans feel awful. They love gifts that are “purely Russian,” with some caveats:

If you do gift, it is desirable to bring something purely Russian when you visit the United States. But make it ‘purely Russian’ for modern America—not nesting dolls and samovar. Instead bring a good book about Moscow or Russian history, art and culture. Americans appreciate a good education and have great respect for cognitive literature.

2. … And definitely don’t bring business gifts.

“Business gifts in the U.S. are not acceptable,” the site Национальные особенности этикета в США cautions. “[T]hey often cause suspicion. Americans fear that they could be construed as a bribe, and in the United States that is strictly punishable by law.”

3. If you’re a man, be careful when dealing with American ladies.

According to the Russian site Этикет США, “U.S. etiquette prohibits flirting with a woman who is not your girlfriend or wife. If you are not acquainted with a woman, whether she be in a restaurant, on the street, or on the subway, do not look at her legs, etc. Americans could easily call the police on you, even for just ogling her.”

When it comes to introducing yourself to a woman, the site Национальные особенности этикета в США advises caution. You shouldn’t kiss her, not even her hand:

Welcome and introductions: men and women tend to shake hands. Mutual kissing and kissing ladies’ hands is not accepted. Also, women play a greater role in business. Often they insist to be treated exactly as an equal and not as a lady. In this regard, it is not acceptable to be excessively gallant, and you should avoid personal questions (do not find out whether she is married).

4. They’d prefer it if you got to the point …

“Americans generally do not like long intros and prefer to go directly to the subject matter, especially if it’s a phone conversation,” says the site Американский речевой этикет. “In Russia we talk about general topics before moving on to the reason for the call.”

That said, once you’re having a phone conversation, Americans won’t be thrilled if you just hang up on them. “Americans are often surprised by the Russian habit of quickly breaking off a conversation and hanging up,” the site notes. “Phone etiquette in America usually involves the gradual end of the conversation, confirmation agreements and standard closing remarks. By the way, ‘see you later’ should not be taken literally. That is a courtesy, and no more.”

5. … But would like you to avoid pointed statements.

According to Американский речевой этикет, “Russian conversational patterns often sound harsh to Americans. Statements such as, ‘You’re wrong,’ can be offensive. This can be interpreted as ‘You are telling lies!'” Instead, soften it up: “[I]t is better to say, ‘I do not think I can agree with this.'”

6. You Can Only Talk About Health in Certain Situations.

And that situation is when your friend is in the hospital. Otherwise, according to the site Американский речевой этикет, “What seems caring can be regarded as an invasion of privacy, lack of tact. You have to have some justification to show interest in their health.” Finally, the site notes, “Do not ask the effect of a magnetic storm (not many Americans know what that is) on their well-being.”

7. When your American friend invites you to a picnic, bring something sporty (and maybe a flask).

The site Деловой этикет по-американски discusses a hypothetical situation in which a Russian visitor to the United States is invited on the most American of outings: The Picnic. (This will only happen “if you’ve known each other for several years and are social outside the office,” though, so probably won’t be an option for the novice traveler.) According to the site, “As a rule, the invitation will be only on a weekend, and you don’t have to prepare for something extravagant. Everything is the same as ours,…

Miami Opens The First Burger Museum In America

Miami is about to become a major destination for burger obsessives. A popular burger blogger is opening up a museum devoted to the meaty sandwich, which he heralds as America’s first such institution.

The Burger Museum by Burger Beast—created and curated by local burger expert Sef Gonzalez, a.k.a. the Burger Beast—is opening on Friday, December 2, and will celebrate the history of burgers, served with a hefty dose of nostalgia on the side. At…