Rumors have interested me for a long time—not merely the occasional bits of chatter from my work life but rumors as historical phenomena. In my second semester of undergraduate studies, one of my professors mentioned in passing that the rumor about Christopher Columbus’s return from his first voyage travelled from the Iberian Peninsula to Paris faster than the actual messenger dispatched with the news. Although I have never found any confirmation of that story, it continues to resonate. With that professor’s comment, I began saving any article about rumors I ran across to my computer for future use.
In August 1939, the newly formed Jamaica Birth Control League opened the island’s first birth control clinic in Kingston to distribute diaphragms at cost or free to working-class women. To advertise their services, the League published a small, discreet notice in the “Wanted” section of the Daily Gleaner, the island’s main newspaper. Within a year, some 500 women had written passionate letters to the League from across the island; thousands more would show up at the clinic’s doorstep, eager to seize on new methods for controlling reproduction.
The history of knowledge is flourishing. Exciting conferences are being arranged, new institutional arrangements are emerging, and a whole range of fresh studies are being published. German-speaking scholars have led the way by proclaiming that Wissensgeschichte (the history of knowledge) is something different than Wissenschaftsgeschichte (the history of science and scholarship), and in the 2010s the field has started to attract considerable attention in other countries and contexts too.1
How should we interpret the appeal of the history of knowledge? Why are historians and other scholars suddenly drawn to the field? And what are the roads that have led them there? An initiative from the Nordic countries could shed light on these questions.
Writing in the age of Yelp from Dupont, the historic center of gay life in Washington, DC, I can have trouble fully imagining the difficulty that many gay men had in accessing gay spaces. Even in the second half of the twentieth century, when gay scenes were expanding in major metropolitan areas across North America and Western Europe and gay rights movements were attaining increased visibility, access to specific gay locales remained largely dependent on local knowledge. This presented a particular challenge for the novice gay traveler, who might have possessed a vague sense that Schöneberg was the “gayborhood” of Berlin or the Marais functioned similarly for Paris, but have no idea which were the best bars, saunas, and so-called darkrooms, let alone whom to call if they ran into trouble with the police.