Chew on This

In 1891, salesman William Wrigley, Jr. moved to Chicago to peddle soap. As an incentive to storeowners to stock his product, he offered free cans of baking soda. When he discovered that the baking soda was the more popular product, he began selling it and using chewing gum as an incentive. And when the gum proved to be the hot item, he became a very wealthy man.

I bet this man could walk and chew gum at the same time. Artist: S. J. Woolf (Samuel Johnson Woolf, 1880-1948)Time, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He wasn’t the first person to crash onto the gum-selling scene, but he was possibly the savviest because Wrigley focused heavily on marketing. In 1915 he was sending free samples to homes all across the United States and had launched a series of newspaper ad campaigns with a wide range of claims about the benefits of chewing Wrigley’s gum while avoiding all those dastardly knock-offs.

Wrigley’s gum was sanitary, long-lasting, and refreshing. Kids loved it and it was good for teeth, stimulated appetite, and quenched thirst. It was soothing after a nice healthy smoke or it could take the place of one if you couldn’t indulge on the job. It eased digestion, relieved stress, and freshened breath. Not to mention soldiers in World War I probably couldn’t function without it. Allegedly.

I question the research, but for some reason I have the sudden urge to chew Wrigley’s gum. Public Domain image.

And you know, some of these claims actually sort of hold up. But one advertisement I found particularly suspicious claims that early man sucked on rocks to moisten his mouth, because he didn’t have gum. Let me tell you, William Wrigley, Jr. might have been a genius when it came to advertising, but his anthropological research missed the mark.

An article published in December of 2019 in the journal Nature Communications squashes the Wrigley rock-sucking theory when it describes a wad of chewing gum that is about 5,700 years old.

Discovered in southern Denmark, this wasn’t the first ancient gum ever uncovered by paleontologists. It wasn’t the oldest either. There’s evidence that some of the people of northern Europe were chewing birch bark tar as far back as 9,000 years ago. The Ancient Mayans, too, chewed chicle from the sapodilla tree, as did the Aztecs who even had elaborate rules of conduct regarding it. For example, if an Aztec schoolgirl popped a chicle bubble in class, she had to immediately spit it out and probably got sent to the principal’s office.

You had me at “purity package.” Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

What’s exciting about this recent gum discovery is that researchers managed to extract from it a complete human genome sequence. The chewer was a woman, though it’s not known why she might have been chewing this particular wad of birch bark. It’s possible she was looking for some pain relief from a toothache or perhaps she was softening it so she could stick it to the underside of a desk.

We do know she was a dark-skinned, blue-eyed, hunter-gatherer who’d eaten duck and hazelnuts for dinner and had been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, aka mononucleosis, aka the “kissing disease.” Which might explain the gum.

Although I doubt her gum had quite the sweet taste or breath-freshening qualities of Wrigley’s. It probably wasn’t as sanitary, either. But it was surely better than sucking on a rock.

Weight for It

A recent study published on the JAMA Network platform of the American Medical Association on March 22 found that on average American adults gained 0.6 pounds every ten days of pandemic-related lockdowns. I’m delighted to be able to say that I am below average, but like most of us, this bizarre year has not been particularly kind to my waistline.

I’ve kept it in check as well as I have only because I started a running challenge. If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time or if you’ve read my book, Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense, then you may recall that I think running is stupid.

Prove me wrong. A good friend of mine likes to say he’ll believe running isn’t stupid when he sees someone both running and smiling. Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

But it is easy to do. All you need is a good pair of tennis shoes and a healthy dose of self-loathing. Also, it’s convenient because you don’t have to go anywhere. That’s literally true in my case since I run pretty much exclusively on a treadmill, both because my knees don’t care for downhills or uneven surfaces and because I don’t like looking like a wheezing idiot in public.

It’s going more or less okay. Of course, I wonder when I can stop with every single step, but my pants still fit and at least some of my below average weight gain could reasonably be attributed to an increase in muscle mass. The rest of it, not so much. So, I wouldn’t mind shedding a few pandemic pounds.

But I have a plan.

This very morning, Thursday April 1, 2021, at 9:47 AM, the earth will experience what scientists refer to as the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect. That’s when the sadly demoted dwarf planet of Pluto will align directly behind Jupiter and produce a combined gravitational effect that will be noticeable on Earth.

1…2…3…Jump! Image by lena dolch from Pixabay

Some astronomers have suggested that the best way to experience this unusual phenomenon will be to jump into the air at that precise time, allowing yourself to hover just a bit longer than you normally would and experience a slight floating sensation. It’s expected that the hang time of an average human jump will increase from 0.2 seconds to as much as 3 whole seconds which, scientifically speaking, you’d have to be a pretty big fool not to notice.

That sounds fun and all, but I have a better idea. At precisely 9:47 this morning, I will be stepping on my bathroom scale, where I expect to note a loss of at least 0.6 pounds for each one of you who is gullible enough to jump in the air and expect to float.

It’s hard not to trust a man wearing a monocle. Sir Patrick Moore. South Downs Planetarium, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

That’s right. I’m sad to have to let you know that the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect isn’t really real. It was first presented to the world in 1976 by well-known and highly-respected astronomer Patrick Moore who was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a war hero, and the longtime host of the BBC’s The Sky at Night program which aired for fifty-five years.

He also had a sense of humor and was credentialed enough to pull off a good April Fool’s prank for the BBC, which is well known for its April Fool’s pranks. I mean, this was no record-setting spaghetti harvest or flying penguin video, but it was pretty good.

And it got people jumping up and down and having a good time. The extra exercise may have even helped them lose a little weight, like an average of 0.6 pounds every ten days they tried again and again to experience the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect. But as far as I know, no one has done a study on that.

Singing Badly into the Phone

This is a big birthday month for our family. Between us my husband and I have five brothers and sisters whose birthdays fall within the month of March, which means that if we were better siblings than we are, we’d spend a lot of time singing “Happy Birthday to You,” loudly and really off key, into the phone.

We don’t have a perfect record, but when we do manage to get the crew together to sing, it’s quite the ridiculous auditory experience for the recipient who greatly appreciates the effort, I’m sure.

I am at least a good enough sibling that I will eat cake in honor of your birthday. photo credit: joncutrer Happy Birthday cake via photopin (license)

It’s strange, really, that we sing so poorly given what a simple little tune the traditional birthday song is. Originally it was designed to be sung by kindergarteners, and at first it had nothing to do with birthdays at all.

It was in the early 1890s when Kentucky school teacher Patty Hill introduced the “Good Morning to All” song to her kindergarten class. Arranged by her sister Mildred Hill, the song first appeared in a collection called Song Stories for the Kindergarten published by Clayton F. Summy in Chicago. It was just a little diddy that was easy for the small kiddos to learn and helped remind them to focus at the beginning of each school day. And it was a simple enough tune that it could be easily adapted for other uses, like wishing a happy birthday, whenever the need arose.

We used such songs with my children when they were young. When as toddlers they were learning to brush their own teeth, we sang what I cleverly named “The Toothbrush Song,” which featured brilliant mommy-on-the-spot lyrics such as “I’m brushin, brushin brushin, brushin, brushin my teeth so I don’t have stinky bad breath.” It helped to liven up the experience and reminded them of how long to keep brushing.

When Warner Bros. purchased the company that held the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You,” the song was estimated to be worth $5 million. I would consider selling the rights to “The Toothbrush Song” for less than that. Like maybe even just $4 million. Image by spangle84 from Pixabay

That’s exactly the kind of thing “Happy Birthday to You” was, a song for teaching a life skill, before it became one of the most legally contentious tunes in history.

The song caught on, and showed up in numerous compilations throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, for the first time with the birthday lyrics in 1912. It appeared in the 1931 Broadway musical The Band Wagon and in Irving Berlin’s 1933 As Thousands Cheer. It became the song to sing at family birthday celebrations. It’s identified in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most recognized song in the English language and has been translated into at least eighteen additional languages. “The Toothbrush Song” has yet to catch on quite so well.

Patty Hill and The Summy Company filed a series of lawsuits over the use of the song and in 1935 registered the copyright that would frustrate an awful lot of people for the next eighty years, including birthday celebrators in restaurants forced to wear silly hats in the middle of a circle of clapping waitstaff singing some song that sounded even more made up on the spot.

The Summy Company changed hands a few times and eventually became part of the Warner Bros. entertainment conglomerate, a company that for quite a while was making an easy $2 million per year on licensing that one silly little kindergarten song. It was serious business. Even Star Trek got in trouble for singing the song translated into Klingon.

I don’t know if the eighteen languages “Happy Birthday to You” has been translated into includes Klingon. I really hope not. photo credit: marakma IMG_3233 via photopin (license)

Any use of “Happy Birthday to You” outside of intimate family gatherings or obnoxious phone renditions performed for unfortunate siblings required a license that would cost from seven hundred to ten thousand dollars, making it possibly the highest-earning song in history.

Then in 1998, the US Supreme Court heard a case involving the Copyright Extension Act, which gets occasionally updated primarily in order to protect Mickey Mouse from ever entering the public domain. The Court upheld the copyright in that case, but in the dissention, the traditional happy birthday song got a mention.

That led law professor Robert Brauneis to do a little research into the history of the song and eventually determine that the copyright could only apply to the specific arrangement initially published by The Summy Company a very long time ago, and that the claim Warner Bros. held on royalties for any performance of the song was pretty shaky. That conclusion led to further lawsuits and a hefty settlement for Warner Bros.

So if, instead of sticking to a truly terrible phone rendition, you want to sing “Happy Birthday to You” to your sister while she wears a ginormous sombrero at the local Mexican restaurant, or if you want to use it in your Broadway musical, or perform it on the jumbotron at Lambeau Field, go right ahead. As of June 28, 2016, the song is in the public domain in the United States. In Europe, too, since January 1, 2017. And if you’d like permission to use “The Toothbrush Song,” just let me know. I’m sure we can work something out.

A Lot of Nerve

In March of 1903 the city of Buffalo, New York was intrigued by the recent murder of successful businessman Edwin L. Burdick. Rumors suggested that Burdick and his social circle were embroiled in activities of questionable morality that had led to several divorces, including Burdick’s own. The story included plenty of soap-opera worthy subplots and culminated in a bloody head bashing-in with a golf club by a never definitively identified angry woman with one heck of a follow-through. The public couldn’t get enough of the whole lurid circus and photographers ended up banned from the inquest.

But this wasn’t much of an obstacle to hobbyist-turned-professional photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals, who had been hired by both the Buffalo Inquirer and The Buffalo Courier, making her the world’s first female photojournalist. Disallowed from the room, Beals boldly shoved a bookcase into position so that she could climb up and snap a few photos through a transom window.

Jessie Tarbox Beals at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, 1904. Taking great photos. On a ladder. In a skirt. Bold. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was this kind of tenacity that brought her success at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, where copious amounts of iced tea were consumed, ice cream cones were almost certainly not invented, and possibly history’s most disorganized marathon took place.

Beal arrived in St. Louis with her husband (who served as her assistant) in time to beg her way onto the pre-exposition grounds after initially being denied any press credentials by fair officials. Once there she absolutely wowed the skeptical officials with her incredible eye for candid images that captured the essence of the fair more than they could have imagined and unfolded a story that sparked imagination and drew people to the exposition.

Of course, she also drove them kind of crazy. She thought nothing of scurrying up a commandeered twenty-foot ladder in her heavy skirt or recruiting fairgrounds employees to hold it steady for her while she grabbed shots of parades and crowds of fairgoers. When her request to take aerial pictures from a hot air balloon was denied because she was far too delicate for such a risky activity, she did it anyway.

She also snapped many beautiful photographs of the subjects of ethnographic exhibits, displaying a universal humanity that didn’t entirely support the tale of racial superiority the fair’s organizers had expected to tell.

Jessie Tarbox Beals: A female photographer with a lot of nerve. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And when President Theodore Roosevelt arrived at the fair and the male photographers respectfully hung back to await their chances, she didn’t hesitate to approach him to ask for a photo op. Then she pursued him relentlessly throughout the day to snap at least thirty more photographs of the president and his entourage. She was one bold lady.

I came across Jessie Tarbox Beals while doing some research for my newest novel project. She won’t be in the book, or really even tangential to it outside of sharing an era, but she leapt out at me anyway as someone I wouldn’t mind knowing more about.

Every new historical novel I write begins with a bit of trepidation. The task of immersing myself into a time and place different than my own is daunting, as is making those many tiny decisions about when to cling tightly to known historical facts and when to play a little fast and loose for the benefit of shaping a story. Then there’s the balance to consider between historically representative attitudes and remarkably different modern sensibilities. I often find myself questioning just what and how much I am really allowed to do.

And I think that’s why the story of Jessie Tarbox Beals appeals to me so much. This week, when we have just marked International Women’s Day and as I take those first careful steps onto the blank page, I am trying to take a lesson from the tenacious lady photojournalist who climbed a bookcase, hopped into a hot air balloon, and chased down a president.

She told great stories with her photos and when asked whether the male-dominated profession of photography was really a good place for a woman she answered that as long as that woman had “a good supply of nerve, good health, and the ability to pick out interesting subjects and handle them in an interesting manner” that she saw no reason why it shouldn’t be. She was one bold lady. With a lot of nerve.

A Brush with Normalcy

This week marks the seventh week straight that the numbers of new Covid cases and Covid-related hospitalizations have been down in my little corner of the world. That’s great news. Vaccines are rolling out, never as quickly as everyone would like, but we’re making progress. And we are beginning to see hints that bits of normalcy are slowly, cautiously returning.

Also this week I went to the dentist for a regular cleaning and checkup, which is pretty normal, but it was especially, wonderfully normal this time, because I got a purple a toothbrush.

I should explain that though I regularly see my dentist every six months, I had been just a few weeks out from an appointment when the pandemic changed everyone’s everything around these parts. My appointment was indefinitely postponed while my dentist office figured out how to keep themselves and their patients safe while also putting their hands inside people’s mouths.

I mean, how exactly does social distancing fit into something like this? photo credit: electricteeth Dental Floss/Flossing via photopin (license)

I didn’t like missing that appointment. I have pretty good teeth and I do my best to take care of my smile, but missing that checkup felt wrong. I imagine it’s a little bit how William Addis felt when he went to jail in 1770 and began to think his oral hygiene routine was insufficient.

Entrepreneur, rag trader, and apparent rabble-rouser William Addis went to prison for inciting a riot in the Spitalfields district of London. It’s not entirely clear what Addis was rioting about. There was a great deal of unrest in the area at the time, primarily among silk weavers who were demanding better pay and generally not getting along very well with one another. A handful of men were hanged for their alleged part in inciting such riots, but Addis, or course, was not among them. Perhaps he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time as so many people are when rioting is involved.

But regardless of why it happened, Addis found himself in prison, contemplating his grimy teeth. As he did so, his attention was caught by a broom being swept across the floor outside his cell and he was struck with sudden inspiration. Instead of wiping his teeth with a cloth and a bit of soot, or crushed shell, or coal dust, or salt, or whatever, he wondered if a mouth-sized broom might be more effective.

The story goes that the next night he set to work drilling small holes into a bone he’d saved from his dinner. Then he obtained a few bits of broom bristle, stuck them in the holes, and secured them to the bone with some kind of wire or glue. And the first tooth brush was born.

Because nothing screams “oral hygiene” quite like a dirty old broom. Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Okay, that’s not exactly true. The first toothbrush, or something like it, was probably invented more than five hundred years earlier in a Chinese prison. Or possibly not in a prison at all. But most likely in China. Addis didn’t even coin the word toothbrush, which first showed up in print in 1690.

Such a clever device hadn’t really caught on in Europe, though. Addis saw an opening in the market and as soon as he’d served his time, he set up his operation becoming the first man to mass-produce tooth brushes, made with bone handles and hair from a boar.

The company he started eventually became Wisdom Toothbrushes, which is still going strong, producing about 70 million toothbrushes per year. They did trade in the bone and boar hair design for a synthetic nylon version when that became a better option.

I’m pretty serious about toothbrushes. I dutifully replace mine every few months, and every six months, I bring a new one home from the dentist. It’s not a Wisdom toothbrush, which I understand markets primarily in England. It’s a boring Oral-B, which was invented in the fifties by a periodontist who I don’t believe ever went to prison. But it is always purple.

I might actually be a crazy lady, but this is what normal looks like to me.

The first time, about eight years ago now, I visited my current dental office, the hygienist asked me what color toothbrush I wanted. I’m almost as serious about dental hygienists as I am about toothbrushes, and it meant a lot that in addition to being gentle and fast and really good at not asking direct questions when her hands are actively in my mouth, this one took the time to figure out my toothbrush color preference.

In eight years, she’s never asked again, yet after every visit, there is a purple Oral-B in my paper sack of dental floss, toothpaste sample, and return appointment reminder. It’s become part of my normal.

So, when the office finally began offering appointments again and I got squeezed into a spot on a different hygienist’s schedule, it felt wrong. The new hygienist was also good. She was gentle and fast and seemed very nice. She didn’t ask me any direct questions while her fingers were actively in my mouth.

Just try me. Image by Daniel Albany from Pixabay

But she gave me a green toothbrush. She didn’t ask, and I didn’t realize her mistake until I was in the parking lot. What could I do? I wasn’t going to be the crazy lady who walked back in to demand a purple toothbrush.

That’s why it was such a relief this week when I walked into the office and was greeted by my regular hygienist and walked back out after my appointment with a brand-new purple Oral-B. It felt like emerging from prison with a better way of doing things. Probably. I’ve never actually emerged from prison. Or been there in the first place. I’m not much of rabble-rouser. But try to give me another green toothbrush and I might just carve it into a shiv.

A New Hobby in the Bag

In 1568, Mary Stewart arrived at the doorstep of her cousin Elizabeth Tudor looking for some help.  Mary was fresh from a controversial straight-from-the-soap-operas marriage to a man who may have murdered her previous husband, had kidnapped and imprisoned her, and was just the right kind of divorcé who could make a group of angry Catholic Scottish lords demand an abdication and force their queen into exile.

It seems she may have also spent a fair amount of time posing for portraits. Mary, Queen of Scots. National Trust, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Protestant Elizabeth I was not particularly happy to see the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who might have, from a certain point of view, had a legitimate claim to the English throne, so instead of being strictly helpful, Elizabeth decided to imprison Mary.

It wasn’t exactly a harsh prison we’re talking about here. Basically, she just had to spend her time in comfort at the various estates of George Talbot, Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. She didn’t have the freedom to go outside unsupervised, but she did have nice furniture, a full domestic staff, and a lot of time on her hands.

She also made a friend. Talbot’s wife, Bess of Hardwick, seemed to get along with Mary pretty well and the two spent many, many, many hours embroidering together. I have no idea if Mary was particularly good at embroidery before her imprisonment, though she was surely familiar with it, as it was a common pastime of the 16th century woman of a certain class. I do know that she got pretty good at it during these long years of her life. I also know that if you find yourself suddenly stuck at home for a long time, it’s good to develop a hobby.

As we come upon nearly a year since life in my corner of the world went completely sideways due to the pandemic, I can look back and see some good things that came from spending a little more time at home and a little less time rushing about. One of those is a new hobby, begun more or less because I had too many plastic grocery bags on my hands.

Woo hoo! I figured it out!

First, let me explain that I have long been dedicated to the reusable shopping bag, not only because it uses a lot less plastic, but because you can weigh one of those suckers down with a gallon of milk, three bottles of wine, and a giant cheese wheel big enough for Thomas Jefferson. Then you can just sling it over your shoulder with as little effort as the world’s strongest man pushing a locomotive, and saunter to your car. Also, you don’t end up with bags and bags full of bags and bags waiting months for someone to remember to take them to be recycled.

But when the pandemic hit, two things happened around these parts. First, the grocery stores stopped allowing reusable bags because, obviously, such bags are notorious for virus transmission. It’s probably safest if you don’t even see a reusable bag.

Second, the recycling center that processed plastic shopping bags shut down operations for a while. I’m not sure why this happened, but it led to the buildup of a large number these bags in my house. I had an easy solution, though, because I have a couple friends who use the bags to make these really cool plastic sleeping mats for people experiencing homelessness. I even knew how to cut the bags and make the plarn (plastic + yarn) they used to do the crocheting.

If I see you leaving the grocery store with colorful bags, don’t be alarmed, but I will probably follow you to your car.

I dutifully made plarn, setting aside just the scraps to one day be recycled, and reached out to say I had it for anyone who wanted it. And that’s when a very kind friend instead said, “I’ll teach you how to crochet.” It took some time, but I had plenty of that. It also took some dedicated YouTubing and a Zoom tutoring session, but I finally got it.

So now, in my year of forced social distancing that has contained a couple stretches of actual quarantine and has at time felt a little like imprisonment, I have crocheted sleeping mats out of plastic grocery bags. I’ve even started asking friends for their bags so I can do more. Because developing a new hobby really does help.

It certainly helped Mary, Queen of Scots. When asked by an envoy from Elizabeth I how she was passing the time, Mary said that “all the day she wrought with her needle, and that the diversity of the colours made the work seem less tedious.” I get that, too, because after crocheting rows and rows of brown, gray, and white, I get ridiculously excited to get to use a bright blue or orange or yellow.

If you have any interest in learning how to make these, I found this YouTube tutorial particularly helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yr_WHW_tGSE&t=742s

And Mary used her needlework well. Between 1569 and 1586 when Elizabeth finally went ahead and had her beheaded, Mary and friends produced a vast number of embroidered panels, many of which contained secret messages and emblems. Collectively they came to be known as the Oxburgh Hangings because they made their way to Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, England, where some of them can still be seen today. The panels contain birds, elephants, plants, and all kinds of natural and symbolic scenes.

My work mainly contains wobbly stripes. It probably also won’t be on display for the public more than four hundred years after my death. But that’s okay, because I’m hoping that someone will get some good used out of my efforts. And I know it has helped me pass the time this year. It’s good to have a hobby.

Confessions of a Box Hoarder

In 1840, the French village of Valréas discovered its destiny. That’s when this little town, which self-identifies as the totally brag-worthy “cardboard capital of the world,” got into the business of moth transport. What they discovered is that cardboard boxes provided the best packaging option for shipping the silk-producing Bombyx mori moth and it became their number one business.

In fact, the people of Valréas are so serious about their boxes that the town is also home to the Musée du Cartonnage et l’Imprimerie (the Cardboard and Printing Museum), which I’m sure you’ll rush right out to see as soon as travel becomes a thing people do again. I probably won’t go, but I wouldn’t mind if you pick me up a brochure.

Though it may be the proudest of the humble cardboard box, Valréas is not its originator. Not surprisingly, the first cardboard comes from China which can also lay claim to the earliest examples of paper and it was about 1817 when the English began using kind of flimsy cardboard boxes commercially.

I mean, you could put anything in there. Even moths. photo credit: Creativity103 Emptied cardboard box via photopin (license)

The corrugated cardboard box that we all know and love today appeared on the scene at the beginning of the 20th century, not long after New York paper bag producer Robert Gair accidentally cut thousands of paper bags in a machine that should have been folding them. The accident occurred in 1879 and led Gair to realize that with some adjustments his machine it could be made to produce foldable boxes.

By 1900, wooden shipping boxes had been largely replaced by the sturdy, lightweight, recyclable alternative that today carries backordered toilet paper directly to the front doors of homes all over the world, protects breakable cargo from damage caused by the rough and tumble world of shipping a thing from here to there, and needlessly stacks up in my basement for years and years and years.

My family has more or less settled in the St. Louis area where we’ve been for about eight years now, but in the earlier years of my marriage we moved a lot. That required a lot of boxes and it caused us to develop a habit. Every time we’ve purchased something big, my husband has saved the box.

Not an actual picture of my basement, but this box shortage might be my fault. Well, that little girl might have helped, too. photo credit: fudj P1070917 via photopin (license)

It’s not entirely fair for me to throw him under the bus here, because I am a willing accomplice in the crazy. And it wasn’t crazy when we were moving every few years. But now that we’re settled, and have a basement large enough to accommodate the original boxes of every piece of electronic equipment we’ve ever owned (some of which have been replaced), I admit I had begun to question whether we should consider downsizing the box collection.

And then I learned something really interesting. Yes, something interesting about cardboard boxes. I’m getting to it, I promise.

The first thing I learned (on Facebook of all places because that’s where there are so many true things to learn) is that I have a friend in the cardboard box business. The second (and this really is the interesting part) is that we are currently experiencing a worldwide cardboard box shortage. True story. As if toilet paper and coins weren’t bad enough.

And though I (and probably you) haven’t spent much time thinking about the cardboard box (except when I’m unnecessarily tucking them onto a shelf in the basement), it’s kind of a big deal. That’s according to both the BBC and my friend who sells boxes. For some reason the American media has been somewhat silent on the whole matter. Perhaps they just haven’t seen the enormous entertainment value of cardboard boxes.

Whatever the American media might think, the cardboard box is indisputably entertaining. So says the National Toy Hall of Fame which inducted it in 2005. photo credit: juhansonin Udo finds Viggo via photopin (license)

Here’s the problem. The pandemic has led to a rapid increase in online shopping and home delivery. That means products that used to arrive in large boxes at stores that broke them down and baled them into neat, clean stacks to be quickly recycled, now arrive on our porches in larger numbers of small boxes which uses more material. There they sit in all kinds of weather, to occasionally fall under attack by dogs and eventually be torn open without much care. Then they’re either piled up in the basement or tossed into the garage where they are contaminated with grease and who knows what else before maybe being recycled a month or so from now.

In an industry where recycled material typically makes up at least 75% of every new product, that’s turning out to be a serious material shortfall. And while big online retailers are managing okay by buying out the cardboard box market, smaller companies are really struggling to package their goods. And I don’t even want to know what it’s doing to the moth shipping business. To quote my friend, it’s “a brutal time to be a box salesman.”

It turns out, boxes are the hot ticket item right now, and while I totally missed out on the hoarding of hand sanitizer, masks, canned food, bread, and toilet paper, I am way ahead of the curve on this box hoarding thing.

So, fear not. If you’re waiting for that backordered thing (or boxful of moths) that can’t get to you because there aren’t any shipping boxes, I got you. I’ll clean out the basement and garage and head to the cardboard recycling drop-off today. I mean, I’ll keep a few of the really important ones. And I won’t get to it today. It’s really cold and awfully snowy outside. But I’ll do it soon. Probably.

Snow Day and a Free Glass Vase

It’s been kind of a crazy week here. It’s the third day in a row that my kids have had a snow day declared and haven’t gone to school. This is because we have received a grand total of very nearly two inches of snow in that time, if I squint just right.

It certainly hasn’t prevented me from driving to run errands, but then I assume school buses don’t handle as well as my Subaru. I suspect, too, it is significantly easier to be an armchair school superintendent than it is to actually be one, which also might be why a school superintendent makes a lot more money than I do.

But anyway, it’s been a strange week of thrown-off schedules, and also I just happen to have a perfectly good seasonally appropriate post from a few years back just collecting dust in the practical history archive. Please enjoy the re-run! And if you happen to live in a location with very nearly two inches of accumulated snow (or perhaps even more), stay safe out there.

Empress for Life and a Free Glass Vase

On November 30, 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte needed to deliver some bad news to his wife Josephine. Nearly fourteen years after he married this widowed mother of two who was six years his elder, and almost five years after he declared her Empress of France, the time had come for him to ask her for a divorce.

Presumably he wasn’t thrilled with the idea. It wasn’t a perfect marriage. The two had weathered family disapproval, a fair bit of infidelity, and the kind of long absences conquering often requires.  But the love letters he wrote to her reveal that Napoleon was a man very much in love with his wife.

The problem was that an emperor needs an heir, and Josephine had yet to give him one, so Napoleon had to make a change. Josephine screamed when he broke the news to her, but after she had a little time to think about it she agreed to the divorce. And he insisted that she retain the title Empress, even after his remarriage.

NM2432
Josephine, Empress of France and Patroness of Roses. By Jean-Baptiste Regnault – Per-Åke Persson / Nationalmuseum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52123172

Now either Josephine was an extremely understanding woman, or Napoleon was an incredibly convincing guy. Or maybe a little bit of both. But I’m guessing it also didn’t hurt that over the years he’d given her a lot of roses.

Because as everyone who ever turns on the radio, or watches television, or opens an Internet browser around this time of year can tell you, roses are the only certain way to a woman’s heart. And a lot of people are getting the message, because florists sell somewhere around 220 million of these most magically romantic flowers for Valentine’s Day each year. Half of those are sold in the US, where 75% of the sales are to men who are, obviously, the best husbands, boyfriends, or sons a gal could ask for.

And the best of the best of those men upgrade to two dozen of the all red variety along with chocolate dipped strawberries and a free glass vase for only $59.99 as long as they order before midnight on February 12 and use promo code: Napoleon.

strawberries
You can keep the vase, but these do look delicious. photo credit: k is for kristina via photopin (license)

Because who wouldn’t want that?

Maybe most women really would. Personally, I don’t get too excited about roses or free glass vases. Don’t get me wrong, I think roses are gorgeous, and they smell good, and it’s nice to get flowers every once in a while because it’s a reminder that my man was thinking about me and wanted to make a romantic gesture.

But the primary reason the rose (which in addition to representing love has often been adopted as a political symbol) has become our Valentine flower of choice, may have more to do with the fact that we celebrate love in the middle of winter. To do so, we have to import a huge number of flowers, and as flowers go, roses are pretty hardy.

And for Napoleon, it’s a good thing they are, because his Josephine loved roses. In 1799, without consulting her husband, she purchased the run-down Château de Malmaison on 650 acres a few miles outside of Paris, and began work to establish a large rose garden.

Soon, gathering roses for Josephine’s garden became something of a national priority. Napoleon ordered the French Navy to confiscate any seeds (and, I assume, glass vases) found aboard seized vessels. And even during the height of conflict during the Napoleonic Wars, many English gardeners were given safe passage through blockades so they might deliver rose varieties to Josephine.

napoleon_bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte, much to the dismay of high end comedians everywhere, was not as short as we’ve been led to believe. In today’s standard measurements he was around 5’6 or 5’7, respectably average for a man of his time. By Unknown – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21290

When in 1809, Napoleon informed his beloved that he would divorce her to marry a woman who might conceive an heir, the jilted woman sought solace at her chateau among her hardy roses. By the time of her death in 1814, Château de Malmaison boasted almost 200 varieties of roses, and her enthusiasm had begun a trend, leading to the establishment of more than 2500 varieties by 1830 in nurseries across France.

By establishing a large garden devoted to only one type of flower, Josephine elevated the rose, long valued as a sweet smelling, medicinal flower, to the status of a flower grown primarily for its beauty, especially when gathered by the dozens and presented on February 14 along with chocolate covered strawberries and a free glass vase. 

And now I don’t want to sell Napoleon short (see what I did there?). I’m sure it took more than roses to convince Josephine that a divorce was the right thing to do for the good of France. Because I gotta tell you, if my man were to present me with my favorite flowers (a bouquet of seasonally available, local-ish varieties at a time when flowers are more seasonally available), and then tell me that even though I’d always be his favorite empress, we had to break up for the good of our country, I wouldn’t scream. I’d just clock him in the head with the free glass vase.

Which Commercial Will You Root For?

On July 4, 1941 the Brooklyn Dodgers took on the Philadelphia Phillies at home in Ebbets Field, a game that was broadcast on local television station WNBT. Though only about 1% of US homes had a television at the time, maybe as many as four thousand households tuned in. It was probably less than that, but just before the game started, those watching also got to see a ten second advertisement for the Bulova Watch Company.

Remembered as the first ever television commercial, it cost less than ten dollars to create, somewhere in the neighborhood of $70-$160 in 2021 dollars. I have no idea what the return on investment for this commercial was, but given that the same company produced the first radio spot advertisement in 1926 and in 1931 engaged in the watch industry’s first million-dollar advertising campaign through its retail partners, I think it’s a safe bet that Bulova thought it was money well spent. That might be especially true since we’re still talking about it eighty years later.

And it seems like a particularly reasonable price tag when you consider that the bidding for a 30-second commercial time slot for this weekend’s Super Bowl 55 began at 5.6 million dollars. Of course, commercial slots aren’t always quite that expensive. When that one pirate-themed team with the quarterback who cheats takes on the Great State of Missouri’s one and only professional football team which just happens to be the reigning champion, more than 100 million people are expected to be watching.  

Eighty years later America still runs on Bulova time.
photo credit: Max Grabert Bulova Precisionist Champlain 98B142 via photopin (license)

As much as it might sound like I do, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I tried for a while because my husband enjoys watching the sport, but I’ve never much cared for American football. Now more and more it just feels like I’m watching repeated brain trauma.

So, like an estimated 37 million of my closest friends, I will tune into the commercials and use the football breaks to go to the bathroom, enjoy some snacks, or perhaps read a book.  I am reading a really good one right now. I will root for the best commercials, those that stick with me because they made me laugh, or cry, or admire their cleverness.

I don’t really have a dog in that fight either because I couldn’t quite swing the $5.6 million. A while back I did spend exactly zero dollars of 1941 currency to produce two book trailers that I have now posted (for the bargain price of zero dollars in 2021 currency) here on my blog where nearly 5,000 followers could potentially see them. It will probably be somewhat less than that and they aren’t exactly Super Bowl quality, but who knows? Maybe people will still be talking about them eighty years from now.

Life Stinks. Deal with It.

In the 6th century BC, the Greek city Sybaris banished both noisy tradesmen and roosters to beyond the city walls. In 44 BC, Julius Caesar restricted the times during which clattering wagons could be driven down city streets or through residential districts. And in 1595, a Londoner could face charges for disturbing his neighbors with noise while beating his wife in the middle of the night.

In 1595, Londoners were expected to conduct their wife beatings during daylight hours. Like civilized people.
By © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66185487

It’s not hard to imagine that as cities grew and industry rose that noise followed, and I doubt anyone would argue with me that todays’ cities with their incessant honking, street musicians, police whistles, and general milling about of thousands of people doing whatever it is that thousands of people do are not exactly peaceful places to be. And then there’s the smell.

As a suburbanite, at least for the last eight years or so, I can assure you that it’s noisy and smelly here, too. For one thing, my neighbors have windchimes that tinkle away in the breeze seemingly right outside my office window. In addition to that there’s an interstate not too far away with plenty of traffic rushing by, a train track well within loud whistle blowing distance, and this one black dog that barks and barks and barks.

Seriously, this dog barks all the time. And he leaves stinky poops in my yard, too. Then he sleeps in my house. Because he’s my dog.

So, I understand why city-dwellers would occasionally wish to seek escape in the countryside where the air always smells sweet and there is absolutely no noise at all. Or at least that seems to be the expectation in France, where tensions between country and city folk have been on the rise in recent months.

With the pressure to socially distance during the pandemic has come a surge in those city dwellers who can afford to do so investing in getaway properties in the French countryside. And that has led to complaints. And lawsuits. Truly ridiculous lawsuits.

In the fall of 2019, one farmer was sued for $5,000 because her ducks had the nerve to be quacking too loudly. Another suit sought to silence a rooster who liked to greet the morning earlier than his new neighbors preferred. A small-town mayor received a request to exterminate the local cicadas because of their droning. He opted instead to erect a six-foot tall cicada statue, because I suspect he is my kind of guy.

In other cases, the plaintiffs were more successful. A pond was ordered to be drained because of excessive frog croaking. A horse was handed a restraining order because his poop was too smelly. It was getting beyond ridiculous.

You do you
You French rooster you.
Cock-a-doodle-doo.
And this, my friends, is why I don’t write poetry.
Image by miniformat65 from Pixabay

And that’s when French lawmakers stepped in. Without amendment and with unanimous support, the Senate passed a bill from the National Assembly on January 21 that protects the “sensory heritage of the French countryside.”

Secretary of Rural Affairs Joël Giraud is pretty psyched about the move calling it a “real victory for rural communities.” And I suppose it is, though certainly not one this practical historian would have thought necessary to proclaim. Essentially, what the French government just did, what the city dwellers of France just forced its own government to do, was to deal out a little tough love and tell its citizens in no uncertain terms (well, maybe a little uncertain, because who really says things like “sensory heritage”) that if one wishes to enjoy the French countryside, then one should expect to take a good whiff of France’s fresh dairy air.

In other words: Life stinks. Deal with it.