The Misadventures of a Mad Hatter

Local legend says that in the late 18th century in Danbury, Connecticut, a man by the name of Zadoc Benedict discovered a hole in his shoe. There might not have been anything remarkable about that except that, in addition to having an excellent name, Benedict turned out to be a clever problem-solver. He plugged the hole with a bit of fur and found that after a while, sweat and friction had formed the patch into a nice felt.

Benedict figured he could use a similar technique to make a stylish felt hat and soon found a way to do just that, creating hats first in his home and eventually in a small hat shop on Danbury’s Main Street.

A pretty picture of a building filled with toxic steam and mad hatters. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And apparently, he made some really nice hats because others in Danbury also decided to go into the hat-making business, which toward the end of the century had become Danbury’s leading industry, producing five million hats per year and earning it the clever nickname “Hat City.”

By then, the hat manufacturing process had taken a turn toward simpler, large-scale techniques involving the use of mercury nitrate, an incredibly toxic substance that turns the furry skin of a small animal into hat felt and a grown man into a trembling, drooling, irritable, mad hatter of the variety that might engage in an endless tea party with his buddy the March Hare.

It’s one of those stories of industrial danger and exploitation that should make your stomach hurt. The earliest clinical description of mercury poisoning was published in 1860. It wasn’t formally studied by the U. S.  Public Health Service until 1937, and that only after many years of pressure from the Hatter’s Union.

John Tenniel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The symptoms mimicked drunkenness, which made it easy for employers to shovel the blame for illness onto the employees rather than the industrial chemicals. And then there’s the reality that the process itself of making a hat can, in fact, drive one mad.

At least this has been my recent experience. This year for the first time, both of my sons are in high school. Both are soon headed to their schools’ homecoming dances, my freshman son perhaps with a bit of trepidation. He’s going with a friend who is a girl who will be wearing a purple dress.

With a little bit of prodding from people who are way too invested in getting nice pictures (like me), my son will match her pretty well. He’s chosen a lavender dress shirt, dark gray slacks, vest, and tie. In addition to this, he wants to wear a flat cap. But it’s got to be purple. Or at least have a significant amount of purple in it.

My only previous hat making experience.

Let me tell you, I have scoured the internet and shown him lots of pictures. What I have discovered is that outside of ordering a custom-made cap rush delivered to Missouri from Scotland, for which I am unwilling to pay, there are no suitable options. Not one. There are, however, some simple patterns available.

I pride myself on being a relatively creative and crafty mom, but sewing has never really been my best medium. I do own a sewing machine and I can whip up a cloth facemask with the best of them. Over the years I have made a few Halloween costumes, hemmed some skirts, and even made one or two outfits for our travel mascot, Sock Monkey Steve. But give me a simple pattern for a flat cap and I will quickly become a trembling, irritable, mad hatter who is ready to start drinking with the March Hare. I doubt it will be tea in my cup.

It’s not quite what I had in mind, but my son says it will do, mostly because he doesn’t want his mother to go mad.

I tried. I really tried. Several times. It did not go well. Fortunately, like Zadoc Benedict, I am clever enough to find a way to make it work. I ended up dyeing a plaid flat cap with an off-white background. So now my son has a purple flat cap to wear to homecoming. I didn’t have to use any mercury nitrate and I have recovered from my temporary madness. 

Eventually Danbury did, too, though not until after an awful lot of hatters had gone mad. The use of mercury nitrate in the hat industry was banned in the U. S. at the end of 1941. We as a nation, much to the chagrin of my son, don’t wear as many hats as we once did, though I suspect those who make the ones we do wear, are still a little mad.

Follow the Bigwigs

Between the years of 1673 and 1765, the city of Paris saw more than a 400% increase in its number of wig makers. Largely that is because King Louis XIV, standing in heels at the pinnacle of fashion, had started to go a little bit bald and decided to take a page from his father’s book.

Previously, Louis XIII had dealt with hair problems of his own. Probably suffering from syphilis, which was all the rage in Europe at the time, Louis XIII lost his hair in patches and suffered with sores on his scalp. And so, he donned a wig.

Yes, there were also many prominent Americans who wore wigs, but George Washington was not among them. I cannot tell a lie, these powdered curls are his own luscious locks. Gilbert Stuart, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wearing a wig wasn’t exactly a brand-new fashion trend. Ancient Egyptians had worn them. Later, some powerful Romans, too. And bald Europeans or those unfortunate enough to be cursed with red hair occasionally wore wigs. Of course, when the king decides to do it, people tend to sit up and notice. Also, a lot of them had syphilis, too.

Wearing a wig became a pretty sensible thing to do. It protected your dome from the air while irritating your festering sores, added a couple pounds to your already cumbersome attire, and made your scalp sweat profusely. It also harbored grime and lice and layers and layers of scented powders that made you smell…well…actually that’s it. They just made you smell. I suppose maybe that kept people from wanting to get within six feet of you, and so it may actually have offered pretty effective protection from syphilis.

I mean, there’s wearing a wig. And then there’s this. Philip Dawe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But wigs really took off in France, and soon all across Europe, when the next generation of French royalty started to wear them. Louis XIV allegedly owned a thousand wigs that he could coordinate with each of his outfits for any occasion, whether an intimate family dinner at home, a sparsely attended press conference, a private walk alone in his gardens, or a jolly Zoom call with foreign dignitaries.

No one would have ever questioned the king’s dedication to wearing wigs, and by his example, probably preventing the spread of syphilis. In fact, because of such noble dedication to looking ridiculous, a hundred years after the end of the reign of Louis XIV, there were still incredibly health-conscious people dedicated to wearing wigs, some of them so elaborate and so big they could have been layers of two or even three wigs stacked on top of one another.  

Of course, in late 18th century France, it became somewhat less healthful to associate oneself with the aristocracy, and wig-wearing finally fell out of fashion there. This development was followed closely by a fairly hefty English tax on wig powder, which convinced the British population that it, too, didn’t care that much for wigs.

I guess maybe there’s an alarming rate of syphilis among English barristers? Someone ought to look into that. Sounds like a public health crisis. Image by Michael Dodd from Pixabay

Today we know a lot more about syphilis, both how it can be avoided and how it can be treated. It’s still a dangerous disease that needs to be taken seriously, and cases have actually been on the rise in recent years, particularly in Europe. It’s also true that wig-makers have gotten better at making natural-looking, more hygienic hair-pieces for those who need them because they have red hair or something.

But I think today everyone, with the exception of English barristers, has come to accept that wearing a poofy wig isn’t often really all that necessary. Still, it sure is funny to look back at the fashion trends of the past and the lengths people would go to imitate and demonstrate support for a particular leader or set of ideas. Thank goodness we know better now.

Hat Smashing Shenanigans

School has begun, Labor Day has come and gone, the pumpkins have ripened too early, and there’s a hint of cool in the air. Despite the calendar’s insistence that there are still eleven more days of summer, it’s starting, in my corner of the world, to feel a little bit like fall. That means it’s time to put out the scarecrows, trim up the flower beds, and think about trading out your straw hat for one made of felt or silk.

These are the kind of big, beautiful pumpkins that will make great Jack-o-lanterns. Too bad someone forgot to tell them that Halloween is still almost two months away.

Or at least that’s what you would have done had you been a gentleman living in the US in the first couple decades of the twentieth century and you cared about such things. Most men didn’t. Not really anyway. But there was a fun tradition highlighted by an article from the Pittsburgh Press in September of 1910 in which stockbrokers jovially destroyed one another’s straw hats if their colleagues were careless enough to wear them after September 15.

That’s all in good fun, I guess, if you find that sort of thing amusing. But the same article mentions an incident in which the police had to intervene on behalf of the straw-hat-wearing average Joe on the street who occasionally found himself unexpectedly bareheaded.

By 1922 the straw hat smashing shenanigans had risen to a new level. On September 13 of that year, two days prior to the unofficially official straw hat smashing day, a group of boys decided to get the party started at Mulberry Bend in the Five Points Region of Manhattan.

So wait, how do the scarecrows get away with such a blatant fashion faux pas? Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

As factory and dock workers left work for the evening, the boys began yanking straw hats off passersby and smashing them in the streets. Probably not surprisingly, some of the hatless victims got upset and a brawl broke out.

The police managed to bring the crowd under control without much more than a couple of arrests, but the conflict didn’t end there. Over the next few nights, riots broke out all over the city. There were more arrests, a lot of angry parents accompanying their teenage children home from jail, and some pretty brutal beatings in the streets. Many men were treated for injuries and least one was hospitalized. Over straw hats.

What began as kind of a quaint tradition used by businessmen to razz one another at work became a serious public safety issue in New York over the next several years when September rolled around. 1924 saw the first murder attributed to the unforgivable sin of wearing a straw hat out of season.

I’m sure that like me, and any other reasonable person, you find this picture completely infuriating. Maybe even worthy of a riot. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Fortunately, the straw hat rioting eventually died out. In 1925, then President Calvin Coolidge commented that he didn’t much care about switching hats, which seemed to calm everyone down a bit. It also helped that straw hats fell out of fashion and so it wasn’t long until no one was wearing them anyway. Then the Great Depression hit and people had more important things to worry about.

But for a while in US history, the kind of violence and destruction that shutters businesses, damages property, and endangers innocent people, occurred at the literal drop of a hat.

Boy, I sure am glad we’re past that.

Plastic Faces and Great Hats

On November 5, 1854 French tailor Alexis Lavigne filed the world’s first patent for the mannequin, though by then he’d been perfecting its use for a number of years and had displayed a prototype as early as 1849 in the Industrial Expedition in Paris. As the industrial revolution had begun to make itself felt and the metric system took over most of Europe, Lavigne understood the shifting of the clothing industry away from individually tailored items toward those which could be mass-produced.

Armed with a flexible tape measure, which he invented, Lavigne set out to study human body types and measurements and produce mannequins that could approximate them, reducing the need for large numbers of fittings and increasing productivity in the fashion industry. And that was a pretty great use for mannequins.

This mannequin doesn’t creep me out, but it would still probably look better in a dress than I would. Image by AnnaliseArt, via Pixabay

Known in the fashion industry as Professor Lavigne, the founder of the famous French fashion school ESMOD, the inventor was not the first person to ever make a vaguely creepy fake person, even for the purpose of modeling clothing. Dating back to 1350 BC, King Tut had a mannequin of himself tucked away in his tomb, that some scholars have suggested may have been used for assembling fashionable pharaoh garb.  

Of course, plenty of artists, too, including Marie Tussaud modeled life-size, and much more lifelike, sculptures of people. When mannequins began to make their way into the department stores of the twentieth century, they became more lifelike, too.

Materials changed from wax to papier-mâché to plastic and female mannequins went from busty to boyish and back again to reflect trends in ideal body shapes. Headless busts gave way to pronounced facial features complete with realistic hair and pouty lips, which then became bald and faceless forms or even unfortunate mannequins who had once again lost their heads.

I would not look as good as this fake person does in this real hat. But I would occasionally blink. Image by KRiemer, via Pizabay

But regardless of the trend, there’s probably always been something just a little unsettling about mannequins. As lifelike as they can sometimes be, mannequins don’t move. Instead they openly stare at anyone passing by in a way that is so unnatural that in the right lighting, or on the set of a horror film, it can appear frightening. They are the silent observers, who in some ways, are just a little bit superior to their human counterparts.

Mannequins are more fashionable than most of us, are much better at holding that perfect awkward pose to best show off their hemlines, and they are completely comfortable in their clothing choices. They’re slimmer than most of us, slightly more ideal in proportion than most of us, and they always look good in hats. They are these disturbing, often quite pretty, pieces of art that stand in the place that should be occupied by people.

And now they are going to restaurants and baseball games, occupying even more spaces that should belong to living and breathing human beings.

Apparently in Taiwan, where baseball is in about as full swing as any of us is likely to see this year, the stands are filled with mannequins. And at least one popular restaurant in Virginia is seating stylishly-dressed mannequins at tables that would otherwise remain empty for social distancing purposes. And yes, even though mannequins are notoriously bad tippers, if you go, they will probably still be served before you.

This family is all ready to go to the hockey game. But I can’t tell if they’re excited.

I suppose it’s a creative solution to the problem of discomfort created by empty spaces once occupied by people. Humans are social creatures by nature, and even the most introverted among us often crave communal experiences. But I’m not convinced that this is a great use for mannequins because regardless of how good they look in hats, I don’t think they can give us that.

Instead, I fear we will find ourselves surrounded by frozen, emotionless faces made of plastic and will be reminded even more starkly that the community we crave is at home in its pajamas.

And I think we might all feel just a little bit lonelier for it.

So, I’m curious. What do you think? Would you want to dine with mannequins? Or watch them sitting in the stands cheering for your favorite teams in your stead?

Click to Buy: One Size Fits No One

In 1886 a large order of watches arrived by freight train in North Redwood, Minnesota, where it was rejected by the local jeweler to whom it was bound. That’s when freight agent Richard Warren Sears saw an opportunity. He bought the watches and turned around to sell them again at a tidy profit. From this first small taste of success, he decided to begin a mail order business. He found a partner in watch repairman Alvah C. Roebuck and soon created a thriving mail order jewelry and watch business that the two decided to base out of Chicago.

sears home
I don’t even like ordering socks! By Sears, Roebuck & Co. – Sears Roebuck Catalog (1922), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9877226

The R. W. Sears Watch Company was a success and made the two men a small fortune when they sold it in 1889. Sears turned his attention then to other career opportunities, but the catalog business had captured his imagination and just three years later, he and his partner once again started a mail order company that this time would catapult them to fame and glory.

Sears, Roebuck, & Company offered the products most residents of rural America would have to haggle for at their general stores, which offered both higher prices and narrower selections. In a year’s time, the company’s three hundred-page catalog had grown to a five hundred-page catalog offering everything from underwear to musical instruments to cars and even modular homes.

For a brief time, while Sears himself was still in charge of some of the ad copy, you could even buy a sewing machine for the bargain price of $1, that turned out to be nothing more than a needle and thread.

mall sears
Seriously, it’s got to be one of the biggest business miscalculations of all time that instead of becoming the premier online catalog behemoth, Sears went the way of the empty mall anchor store. photo credit: jjbers Closing Sears (Crystal Mall, Waterford, Connecticut) via photopin (license)

And that’s pretty much why I hate ordering through the mail. I know it’s just a way of life, especially now when most brick and mortar stores, at least in my corner of the world, are closed for the foreseeable future.

Like most authors, I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Amazon. I grudgingly admit that despite the impersonal customer service that I have to angrily beg for to receive any response, the continual and seemingly random removal of reader reviews on my books, and the impenetrable mystery that is the magic of keywords, if it weren’t for the ‘Zon, I’d sell a much smaller handful of books.

Fortunately, and also maybe a little bit unfortunately, other retailers have gotten into the online ordering game now, too. It’s helping to keep smaller businesses afloat during a tough time. For that, I’m grateful.

But, man, I miss physically going to a store to browse the shelves and actually see what I’m purchasing. It’s a frustrating process to shop for that pair of jeans that fits perfectly or a set of curtains in just the right shade of green or a pair of sunglasses that won’t make me look like an overrated celebrity hoping I’ll be noticed trying not to be noticed.

sunglasses
This is just the kind of picture that would make me think ordering a pair of giant blue framed sunglasses would be a great idea. It wouldn’t be. Right? image via Pixabay

With online shopping, not only do I have to wait to learn that I can’t force my new jeans over my wide hips, but now I have to repack them and ship them back. Or take the loss, pass them along to some slender-hipped friend in need, and continue wearing yoga pants.

And it doesn’t really matter what I’m ordering. It will never fit. Or it won’t be the right color or the right dimensions or the right fabric that won’t make me break out in hives. I am a terrible online shopper. I have no doubt that I’d have been the customer dumb enough to purchase a needle and thread from Sears instead of an actual sewing machine.

Alas, this is the world we live in, where even our toilet paper has to be purchased on the internet. I’m sure I could find a way to botch that, too.

Modern Day Plague Fashion

Sometime in the vicinity of 1630, a superstar physician by the name of Charles de l’Orme branched out into the realm of fashion design. By this time he’d enjoyed quite a few years of a brilliant medical career, serving as personal physician to several members of the famed House of Medici and a French king or two. If anyone in the medical field seemed to know what they were doing (and really, it’s only in hindsight that we know they definitely didn’t), this was the guy. He was kind of the Dr. Oz of his day.

Plague_doctor_drawing
Never fear, this overgrown omen of death is here to make sure you’re counted among the desperately ill. If you’re lucky, he might even bleed you or apply liquid mercury to your skin while he’s here.

And one, among many, of the medical challenges he and his fellow physicians faced was the frequent recurrence and constant threat of Bubonic plague. In 1630, there hadn’t been a full-on pandemic level outbreak of the plague in quite a while, the previous major one occurring nearly three hundred years earlier. But it still existed in pockets, and Charles de l’Orme had some ideas for how physicians could be ready if the worst should happen.

He designed the first personal protective equipment for the large numbers of plague doctors who would be on the front line of any impending pandemic. The design included a waxed leather coat covered in animal fat, leggings, boots, gloves, a wide brimmed black hat, and a mask that can only be described as the stuff of nightmares. In case that wasn’t enough there was also a cane, allegedly used for keeping sick patients at a safe social distance, or perhaps beating the disease-causing demons from out of them.

The freakish mask included glass eye coverings, a beak-like appendage containing herbs and spices for freshening the dangerous miasma out of the air, and openings wide enough to allow for easy breathing of plenty of contagion.

dr smurf
The less frightening garb of the modern, much more competent, plague doctor. Still a little scary, but much better.

By the time 1665 rolled around and brought with it the Great Plague of London and the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people in that city alone, huge numbers of plague doctors, most of whom didn’t actually have much in the way of medical knowledge even by 1665 standards, were suited up and ready to become a significant portion of that number.

Fortunately, our personal protective equipment has improved a great deal since then, as has our epidemiological understanding, and those medical professionals well trained to make good use of both. We also, thankfully, have given up on the terror-inducing, overgrown crow heads.

I’m very thankful for that each time I don a much friendlier-looking cloth mask and venture to the grocery store. It’s still an odd sensation to be there, and at least for me, not a very uplifting one. It’s difficult to communicate, or even offer a friendly smile, from behind a mask. That little covering adds an extra sense of gravity and an eerie sense loneliness to the experience.

homemade mask
I might be smiling. But you’ll never know.

I know the end of this, while not necessarily in sight, is coming. In my corner of world our number of cases are still climbing, but our projections suggest the curve has been flattened and that when we reach the worst, our medical community will be ready and able to manage it.

I also know that unlike the plague doctors of the seventeenth century whose primary role was one of data collection more than medical treatment, our epidemiologists are as on top of this thing as they can be. To borrow a slightly adapted line from The Martian, they are sciencing the spit out of this. And they’re doing it much more fashionably.

Handkerchiefs, Ribbon, and Necessity

November is well under way and here in Missouri that means we’ve experienced our first cold snap and snow accumulation event, which we never get this early, except that this is the third year in a row it’s happened. And last week I wrote about how the menfolk are participating in their annual celebration of manliness by growing out their stubble for “No Shave November.”

corset-2809179__340
Ouch! Image courtesy of Pixabay

This week, for balance, I want to take a moment to recognize the genius of women, particularly one woman—Mary Phelps Jacob. In 1910, at the age of nineteen, Mary was living the American debutante lifestyle, preparing to attend yet another high society ball. Like she’d surely done many times before, she put on her stiff whalebone corset and sucked in while her maid cinched it tight before struggling into her fancy dress.

Then she examined herself in the mirror and didn’t like the way her look all came together. Or maybe it was just that she realized she couldn’t really breathe. Somewhat rashly, she asked her maid to bring her two pocket handkerchiefs, some ribbon, and a sewing kit.

Brassière_-_Mary_Phelps_Jacob
So much better than a corset. By Mary Phelps Jacob – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That night Mary traded her corset for her homemade hanky contraption and was the easiest, breeziest belle at the ball. Many significantly less comfortable women took notice and, gasping for air, wanted to know her secret. It didn’t take Mary long to realize she was on to something big.

On November 3, 1914, Mary Phelps Jacobs, who would eventually become known as Caresse Crosby, received the first patent for the modern bra. Women everywhere abandoned their restrictive corsets and celebrated with a collective and blissfully deep sigh.

Jacobs wasn’t the first or only person to tackle the terrible problem of women’s undergarments, but I love her story the most because I can just picture it—the moment when comfort and practicality won over fashion.

bride-727004__340
I bet she’s not wearing a corset, either. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

I imagine it was a lot like that moment you kick off the ridiculous high heels at the wedding reception so you can actually dance or later when you trade the confining cocktail dress for your trusty old yoga pants. If there are any bewhiskered menfolk still reading at this point, I suspect this feeling is also similar to loosening your necktie.

The story of Mary Phelps Jacob is great because it’s kind of universal. And because as we head through the month of November when we stop shaving, and here in the US, we don our stretchy turkey pants and prepare to tuck in for the long, cold winter ahead, it’s nice to pause and remember that sometimes it’s the necessity of comfort that is the mother of the greatest inventions.

The Greatest Shoe-Buying Orgy in History

On June 17th, 1943, the New York Times printed an editorial speculating that the United States found itself on the verge of the “the greatest shoe buying orgy in the history of the nation.” This was about four months into the U.S. Office of Price Administration’s institution of shoe rations.

The OPA, the same people who brought the US rations on sugar and gasoline and an outright (albeit short-lived) ban on sliced bread, called for shoe rations because rubber and leather were in short supply during World War II. In their great wisdom, they suggested members of the American public could get by with no more than three new pairs of shoes per year. Also, these shoes would only come in four colors—black, white, dark brown, and light brown, and under no circumstances were shoes to be multicolored. Because war.

shoe rations
By Charles Henry Alston, 1907-1977, Artist (NARA record: 3569253) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There were some exceptions. Police officers and others who relied heavily on a sturdy pair of shoes to complete their essential tasks were excused from the rationing, and allowances were made for orthopedic shoes and in cases of lost or damaged footwear due to theft or fire. But families with fast-growing little feet had to make due by creatively distributing their ration cards from adult family members to the youngsters.

There were some other restrictions as well, including the prohibition of boots taller than ten inches, all golf spikes, and shoes with heels higher than two-and five-eighths inches, which had the added bonus of greatly increasing American foot comfort.

The shoe rationing was a logical move by the OPA, and one that the American public handled fairly well, even through a further restriction down to two pairs per year, and all the way until the rations were entirely lifted on October 30, 1945. The used shoe business surged, as did the seedy shoe black market. Some inventive entrepreneurs turned to non-rationed supplies, growing the plastic, recycled carpet, and whatever-material-one-could-find-lying-around-in-one’s-basement shoe industry. Whatever the solution, Americans spent a couple of years contemplating what might have been an unhealthy obsession with what they put on their feet.

shoe rations2
By Unknown – https://collections.carli.illinois.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/nby_teich/id/9676, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because there’s no question Americans like shoes. Estimates of the average number of shoes owned by today’s American woman fall somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-eight pairs, with the men polling surprisingly close behind them.

I have to admit, I scoffed a little at that. As a highly practical person who mostly wears comfy tennis shoes, I definitely don’t own such a ridiculous amount of footwear. I mean sure, I sometimes don a pair of dress flats, which I own in several sensible colors. Also, sometimes I wear boots, either black or brown, or with a dress or skirt I might occasionally put on a pair of heels to match. And everyone has to have a pair of hiking shoes, and a pair of tough summer sandals, or fun flip-flops appropriate for beach-going, or strappy little sandals for wearing with a cute summer dress.

That’s right. In an attempt to prove that I’m far superior to the average American woman, I went into my closet and started counting. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I am, well, let’s just say above average. I walked out of my closet a little humbler, and I started to think about whether I would feel good about limiting my new shoe purchases to two or three pairs a year.

shoes
Not my closet. But it probably could be. Image from Pixabay

Of course, if I had to, I could do it. I do, after all, have a pretty good supply of shoes already. I’d probably benefit from a new pair of tennis shoes at some point during the year because they don’t last forever and I’m old enough to suffer aches and pains if I push a pair too far. I’d also probably have to give up at least one new pair for myself to get an extra for one of my growing boys.

I’d like to think that if, like the Greatest Generation before me, I had to limit myself in a patriotic effort to help out my country, I would do it without full-on panicking. Because despite a little grumbling from podiatrists and the fear expressed in the New York Times that rations would lead to hordes of crazed women engaging in shoe-buying orgies, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that the rationing was too much of an issue.

But to be fair, I haven’t found evidence of any greater shoe-buying orgies in American history, so I guess maybe that panicked, shoe-obsessed Times writer might not have been entirely wrong.

That Thing I Just Had

The other day, I stumbled across an article posted by Smithsonian Magazine about an Ancient Egyptian sock. This toddler-size, striped sock has been a part of the collection of the British Museum for more than a century, but recently it has resurfaced as an object of interest for researchers.

The sock was originally discovered in 1913 or 14 by Englishman John de Monins Johnson during an excavation in the ancient city of Antinopolis on the east bank of the Nile. Described in the article as a papyrologist, Johnson was most likely hoping to find examples of ancient writing that he could spend years poring over. He wasn’t looking for a sock.

single sock
I also can’t stop wondering what happened to the other sock.

But if Johnson was a parent, I can imagine he wasn’t terribly surprised by the discovery. There’s no way I could count the number of times I’ve been looking for that thing I just had* and found instead a kid’s carelessly discarded sock(s).

I have great kids. I really do. My boys are now eleven and thirteen and they both work hard at school, and are kind and generous and respectful. At this point in their young lives they can claim quite a few life skills, too. They are capable of doing laundry, preparing a few recipes, or mowing the lawn.

socks
These are not my keys.

But they are both guilty of constantly kicking off their socks and leaving them for their exasperated mother to find. Their stinky socks are crammed in between the couch cushions, left under the kitchen table, wedged under mattresses, and crumpled on the floorboard of the car. Occasionally I even find them in the back yard. It’s enough to drive any mama completely mad.

Please don’t tell me if I’m wrong, but I suspect this source of aggravation is universal. The Egyptian mama whose little kiddo lost her stripy toe sock (that was probably worn with sandals, which presumably also got lost), was surely exasperated that for the three hundred and eighty-third time that day, little Ahhotep had kicked off her booty.

toes
When your toes are this cute, socks are optional. photo credit: light2shine Feets via photopin (license)

Of course, no parent wants to leave a trail of socks wherever they go, but when kids are little, it’s also kind of cute to see them wiggle and struggle until those adorable chubby toes are exposed for all the world to enjoy. When they’re tween/teenagers, it’s less cute.

So when I read what should really be a fascinating article about researchers using a noninvasive scanning technique to learn about the types of dyes used in the manufacturing of Ancient Egyptian clothing, all I could think about was that stupid lone sock, stuffed into the couch cushions at the British Museum for the last hundred years.

It’s possible I lost the point. I’m pretty sure I just had it and then set it down somewhere. I’ll have another look at the article and see if I can pick it up again. But I’ll probably just find that same cast-aside sock.
*This could be (but is certainly not limited to): keys, book, purse, pen, phone, remote control, scissors, shoe, grocery list, my marbles

Yes! Wonderful Things! Fashionable Man-Cardigans and the Mannequin Challenge

In 1907, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon hired Egyptologist Howard Carter to aid him in his excavations in the Valley of the Kings. Carter worked for years, with a brief break caused by World War I, but it wasn’t until November 4, 1922, with Lord Carnarvon growing impatient and about to pull the plug on the whole operation, Carter got his big break.

That’s when he found stairs that led to a tomb he thought likely to be undisturbed. On November 26th, with the excited Lord Carnarvon by his side, Carter chiseled a small hole leading to the antechamber of the young, and fairly insignificant King Tutankhamun. When asked if he saw anything, the Egyptologist answered, “Yes! Wonderful things!”

It took months to catalogue everything in the antechamber and it wasn’t until 1932 that Carter was finished removing the thousands of wonderful things buried with the pharaoh. Among those were musical instruments, chariots, weapons, and a mannequin.

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Life-size bust of Tutankhamun, found in his tomb. And possibly, the world’s oldest fashion mannequin. By Jon Bodsworth [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons
At least that’s the purpose Carter suggested for the life-size, armless bust of King Tut, that it was used to model his jewelry, and robes, and fashionable man-cardigans. And dating from around 1350 BC, it may have been among the first of its kind.

Since then mannequins have gone through a number of changes. They’ve been life-size dolls shipped between European Aristocracy to exchange fashion trends, whicker dress-forms, and awkward 300-hundred pound sculptures with false teeth, glass eyes, and real hair.

At times they’ve been made from easily melted wax, have become the celebrated date on the arms of the occasional disturbed artist, and have come to life as the love interest in a bad eighties movie. Mannequins have been both curvy and slender, to reflect the fashion ideal of the era. They’ve been mangled by Salvador Dali, and they’ve often appeared in shop windows with no arms, no legs, and no heads. But longer than we’ve had big shop windows to put them in, and maybe even longer than we’ve had fashionable man-cardigans to display, mannequins have been around to creep us out.

mannequin
A headless mannequin could never pull off this look. photo credit: vtpoly best mannequin eyes, Seattle via photopin (license)

Recently, a new kind of mannequin has taken over the Internet. Scores of people are now rising to the mannequin challenge. And by scores, of course, I mean high school students, athletes, and probably very soon, people old enough they probably ought to have better things to do.

The way it goes is that a group of people stand, completely still in mid-activity, as if they are mannequins, while another person with a camera moves among them filming close-ups of their stunningly (or not so) executed poses. And usually there’s music, because let’s face it, people standing still is not, on its own, necessarily an exciting thing to watch.

I say, why not rise to it? Because Internet challenges have been with us for years (not like actual mannequins, or man-cardigans, or King Tut, but still, a while) and this one might have come at just the right time. I think after the week the US (and to some extent the world) has had, and is having, we might all be feeling a little frozen anyway.

So go ahead, give it a try. I would, but I’m old enough I probably ought to have better things to do.