Sarah Albee @ Politics and Prose :: May 13, 2015


Sarah Albee is, most recently, the author of the nonfiction books Poop Happened (2010), Bugged: How Insects Changed History (2014), and Why'd They Wear That? (2015).

One of the questions she gets asked most often is, "Where do you get your ideas?" Her ideas come from questions. She's naturally curious! Her poop book came from seeing a suit of armor and wondering how knights went to the bathroom. But what really motivated her to get started on researching this question was her youngest son. He was very mischievous as a little kid, and he stopped up the toilet right before a party, and she wondered what people did back in the day before they had flushing toilets. 


For Poop Happened, she was able to conduct research at the Library of Congress and the National Archives. Items to avoid feces in city streets affected clothing and shoes --> history through fashion (which is different than fashion history). Also, lots of bug stuff came up from research during the poop book, which lead to writing Bugged. She also got information about fashion researching insects (ex. Aztecs created red textile dye from cochineal bugs. Spain got rich from this dying technique they stole from the Aztecs and they hid the technology from other countries for awhile).

How she does research: 
  • Read: get your hands on as many books and articles as you can.
  • Experience: if you can't go to Africa to research animals, go to the zoo.
  1. sight (looking at art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian)
  2. sound (go to textiles mills to listen to the actual mill)
  3. One of the students in the audience volunteered to try on a neck ruff and padding around the waist to get a skirt to poof out
  4. touch (trying on period pieces like clothing slaves had to wear (such as linsey-woolsey))
  5. taste (ex. cinchona/quinine for malaria)
  6. smell (visiting the old sewers of Paris
  • Talk to Experts: She just visited the National Museum of Health and Medicine (in Silver Spring, MD) yesterday to visit a forensic anthropologist. (Her next book is on poisons. She came upon this topic from what she learned in her previous research (ex. green dye came from arsenic).)
    pictures from her recent visit to the National Museum of Health and Medicine

    Advice for young people who want to be writers: READ! She reads a book twice so she can "look under the hood" the second time around. WRITE! Like basketball (she played semi-pro in Egypt!), it takes practice. 

    Fun fact: Sarah used to work at Sesame Street (in the 80s) as an editor and it was the funnest place to work. Her husband jokes that she uses her married name (Sarah Willson) for work she's not proud of (like SpongeBob!). Sarah uses various pen names depending on the work she's doing.

    Why'd They Wear That? Fashion as the Mirror of History by Sarah Albee

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