The Greatest Necessity of the Age!

Sixth century Chinese government official and great advocate of education Yan Zhitui, in 589 AD, included among his many writings the following line: “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” I get that. I think wiping the nether regions with the writings of a greatly admired person might be on par with breaking up with someone via text message.

But more importantly than communicating a cross-cultural understanding of disrespectful behavior, this may well be the earliest written record of the use of toilet paper. The Chinese were way ahead of the game in this aspect of personal hygiene.

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I’m not worried about running out. My own great state of Missouri is home to the world’s largest roll of toilet paper, a two-ton testament to hygiene, created by Charmin and housed at the Ripley’s Museum in Branson. photo credit: derekGavey An Ecological Conundrum via photopin (license)

While the rest of the world still struggled through the problem of poop with wood shavings, hay, rocks, corncobs, frayed rope, hands, or in the case of the Ancient Romans, communal sponges dipped in vinegar, China was busy manufacturing millions of packages of paper designed for freshening up the often less than fresh parts of the human body.

Here in the United States, it wasn’t until 1857 that paper was produced specifically for that purpose. Joseph Gayetty introduced his “Medicated Paper,” soaked in aloe and advertised as “The greatest necessity of the age!” Gayetty even proudly stamped his name across every piece, apparently conceding that he was not a great sage.

His product was definitely overpriced, at the equivalent of $12 in today’s money for a package 500 sheets, which along with $50 shipping might currently be a bargain on Amazon. Most Americans opted instead for ripping a page of the latest catalog from Sears & Roebuck or The Farmer’s Almanac, which came with a hole drilled at the corner for easy hanging from a hook in the outhouse.

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Obviously this patent drawing has something to add to the over/under toilet paper roll debate, but as I tend to avoid controversy on this blog I’ll refrain from pointing out the correctness here. Seth Wheeler / Public domain

In 1871, Seth Wheeler finally patented the toilet paper roll of perforated sections similar to what is widely used today. A few years after that, the Scott brand began successfully marketing toilet paper rolls to hotels and drug stores, and with the rise of indoor plumbing came the growth of the toilet paper industry, resulting in better products that were occasionally even free of splinters.

Americans, along with much of the world, were finally pretty much settled on the idea of bathroom tissue. Really, we’d have a hard time doing without it. I’ve seen estimates claiming that on average each American uses anywhere from 23.6 to 100 rolls per year.

So let’s do a little math.

If the lower number is closer to the truth then that means that in the course of fourteen days, the average American would use about 9/10 of a roll of toilet paper. If the larger number is closer to true, then that jumps to about 3.8 rolls.

The average American household includes 2.5 people, which means that if we assume maximum usage, the average American household toilet paper need in the course of fourteen days is about 9 ½ rolls. The large club store closest to my house sells toilet paper in packages of 32 extra large rolls.

They can’t keep it in stock.

LaunchingSheep-CoverImage
As the not-so-sage author of a book classified by some as a “bathroom reader,” I want to reassure you that should you need to sacrifice a few pages, I anticipate no supply issues for replacement copies.

I have to assume this is because we recently got our first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the St. Louis area. The patient is a young woman who was infected while traveling in Italy. She is quarantined in her home and is thankfully doing well. As an extra precaution, her entire household is being kept in quarantine for the standard recommended fourteen days. There’s been no word on whether or not they have plenty of toilet paper.

I sincerely hope they do, because if they ask a neighbor to drop some on their porch, that neighbor might have a hard time finding any on the store shelves.

Fortunately, the US military has figured out a solution to the problem of toilet paper rationing as demonstrated in this (modest) linked video, that I don’t recommend watching if you’re squeamish about such things.

Still, I’d hate to think that anyone would have to resort to using wood shavings, hay, rocks, corncobs, frayed rope, hands, or for the love of all that is holy, a communal sponge dipped in vinegar. I suppose if the situation gets really desperate, quarantined people could raid their bookshelves. As long as they make sure to avoid commentaries on the Five Classics or the names of sages.

A Blog Tour in the Bag

A few years ago I unpublished my birthday on Facebook. I didn’t do it because I hate celebrating or because I’m self-conscious about my age. I really don’t care if people know how many twenty-ninth birthdays I’ve had.

But I am a bit of an introvert, which means as much as I love being around people (and I really do), I tend to get a little overwhelmed when I’m the center of too much attention.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that people want to celebrate with me and wish me well. I just sometimes think that while they do, I’d kind of rather be hiding in a quiet corner with a paper bag over my head.

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photo credit: Flооd How You Doin’? via photopin (license)

Thanks to inventor Luther Crowell who, 148 years ago today, invented the machine that makes folded, flat-bottomed paper bags, I could actually do that.

If you happen to live in Cape Cod (and odds are you don’t), you may have heard of one of the area’s most famous sons, whose more than 280 patents included a flying machine that, at least in concept, resembled the modern helicopter.

Or perhaps you’ve discovered him on LinkIn where you’ll find that this Paper Bag Inventor at Paper Bag Inventor has a skill set that includes paper craft, paper industry, and paper prototyping. I think you’ll also find that there are people in this world who spend way too much time on the Internet.

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Obviously some people have also spent way more time thinking about uses for paper bags than I have. But this is cool! photo credit: georigami Andrew Hudson’s Nova Bind via photopin (license)

Certainly Cowell is most remembered for the machine that could make a sturdy folded paper bag, an invention that contributed to the newspaper printing (and folding) industry as well as to the grocery checkout line where customers are still regularly given the option of using Crowell’s bags to carry home potato chips and bottles of salad dressing.

These paper bags are also useful for craft projects, making text book protectors, quickly ripening fruit, and occasionally hiding in corners.

That last one might be wishful thinking on my part, because this week I’m on a blog tour, talking about my new historical novel, some of the research, my convoluted journey to publication, my third grade teacher, my first ever fan letter, and my thesaurus collection. Don’t judge. It’s a lot of posts. And trust me when I say you’re not going to want to miss the thesauri.

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Me without a paper bag on my head, and feeling just the tiniest bit uncomfortable.

I love talking about books with readers and with other writers (there’s a lot of overlap between those groups). I’m incredibly grateful to my fellow bloggers who have invited me to share their space and for all those who have interacted with me on the posts and shared them on social media. It really has been a lot of fun.

It’s also been a little scary and a tiny bit exhausting putting myself out there and basically demanding attention. So I am going to invite you to take a look at the tour, to check out the blogs of some wonderful new friends, and to read my ridiculous posts about myself and my writing. You could even win a copy of my new book Smoke Rose to Heaven for Kindle if you leave a comment on any of them.

Smoke Rose to Heaven Virtual Tour

While you do that, I’m just going to sit quietly in this corner over here with a paper bag over my head.

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Outsmarting Sawdust and Dog Hair

The weather has at last begun to turn a bit cooler here in the Midwestern US. Our peak temperatures missed their mark a little bit this year, arriving in early September rather than mid to late August and it frankly made us all kind of cranky. When you steel yourself for 95° F and humid as a bowl of soup by August 15th, and you’re dealing with it instead when all the kids are back in school and pumpkin spice has taken over the grocery shelves, it can be a little disconcerting.

But finally, we’ve arrived and we’re all celebrating. Especially my dog. And my vacuum cleaner. This lengthy summer has been hard on both of them. In fact, one of them didn’t make it through the stress.

Ozzie sleeping
This has been a sleeping-on-top-of-your-blanket kind of a fall. Also, you may not be able to tell from this picture, but I’m pretty sure this dog is practically bald.

Because even though the most extreme temperatures of the season were a little delayed, slightly less miserably hot and humid is still pretty hot and humid if you always wear a thick, black dog hair sweater.

Ozzie faced summer the way dogs do. He slept a lot, most often our air-conditioned house. When he did have to go outside, he found shady spots and never stayed out for too long. And he shed. A lot.

And I mean A LOT. For a while, we were brushing him twice a day and disposing of at least a toy poodle’s entire coat worth of hair each time. Of course, we were also vacuuming regularly, throwing away lots of poodles, until the vacuum decided one day it just couldn’t take it anymore.

The old vacuum lived a good long life. For years it cleaned up baby-slobber covered Cheerios, mislaid LEGO bricks, and various broken bits. It survived moves halfway across the country and back with the ripped-up scars of multiple “Load Last” stickers to show for it. It wore several belts, tangled with birthday balloon ribbons, and chased away quivering dust bunnies from beneath couch cushions and under beds.

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So far the new vacuum really sucks, which in this case is a good thing.

A good vacuum is one of those things you probably don’t think about too much until you need one and don’t have it. And like most great inventions it’s also one of those things you don’t invent until you realize it’s exactly what you need and you don’t have it.

That was certainly the case for Anna and Melville Bissell. In 1876, the couple ran a crockery shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they received shipments of delicate goods packed carefully in boxes of sawdust.

The sawdust worked great for keeping the fine china safe, but it also made a giant mess on the floor. Mechanical carpet sweepers had been around for more than sixty years and the Bissells had one. It just didn’t work that well when facing all that sawdust.

Melville Bissell
Melville Bissell, a man who outsmarted sawdust because his wife told him to. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Melville decided to design one himself. His sweeper did the job much better. It worked so well, in fact, that customers began to ask for it and a new Bissell business was born. When Melville died at only age 45 in 1889, Anna took over the company as the first female CEO in the US and successfully led Bissell to become a worldwide force in the carpet sweeping industry.

Powered vacuums were introduced at the turn of the century and eventually took over much of the market, but Bissell expanded into those as well. And today the company is still the most popular producer of carpet sweepers used most widely in the restaurant industry because of their quiet unobtrusiveness.

When our vacuum decided it couldn’t handle the dog hair and finally gave up the ghost with a loud death rattle no belt replacement could fix, we didn’t buy a carpet sweeper. We didn’t even replace it with a Bissell. But we did find a vacuum that could do the job much better. Still, I bet it’s as grateful as Ozzie is that the cooler fall weather is finally here.

So Cold: The Secret to My Success

Occasionally someone will ask—either at a reading event or in casual conversation—whether I find it difficult to work at home. They wonder if I get distracted by the dishes or the errands or the dirty socks my children have inevitably left stuffed behind the couch cushions.

Of course, I have to admit that sometimes I do. Sitting behind a computer screen with no one to talk to except the dog (a good listener) and the chorus of characters (not great listeners) competing for attention in my head can get a little tiresome. Then the household stuff calls to me. It’s a convenient distraction—one I can always justify because those things need to get taken care of, too.

I generally reply that I get by because I’m list-maker and dedicated time manager, and I am, but I also have a special, motivational weapon in my arsenal, especially this time of year.

I’m cold.

Like seriously cold. All. The. Time.

thermostat
One study suggests that a third of all couples argue over the temperature setting in their homes, and 40% of women admit to secretly turning up the heat when their significant other isn’t looking. photo credit: EE Image Database Woman giving the thumbs-up sign and pointing to a thermostat on the wall in her home via photopin (license)

People have been finding clever ways to keep our environments warm pretty much since the invention of people, when cave men and cave women argued about how much to build up the campfire.

In ancient Rome, some buildings evidently used systems of pipes to force hot air from pockets of empty space beneath a fire into walls as a clever method of using radiant heat to warm up a room.

After a few dark and chilly centuries when heating returned to a more primitive style, other solutions began to emerge. In 13th century Europe, the Cistercian Order of monks began using diverted and heated river water to warm their monasteries. Better stoves and chimneys were developed through the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Then Benjamin Franklin invented his (appropriately named) Franklin Stove in 1741, which proved to be a somewhat effective way to force warmth and smoke into a room in greater amounts than your average fireplace.

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My dog’s favorite solar powered heating system.

Over the next hundred years or so, Scotsman James Watt came up with a steam-driven heating system, Russian Franz San Galli invented the radiator, and American professor Warren Johnson patented the first thermostat, because he was tired of classrooms that were either too hot or too cold. I think we’ve all been there.

Just a few short years later in 1919, Alice H. Parker patented the first central heating system that used natural gas. An African American woman enduring harsh New Jersey winters, Parker said she developed the idea that formed an important basis for the convenient and safer heating systems of today because she was cold and her fireplace just wasn’t cutting it. I hear that.

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Dressed for a day at the office.

According to a 2015 Dutch study, most women probably do. On average, the researchers found, ladies tend to be comfortable with a warmer ambient temperature than their gentleman counterparts do. The findings (which surprised absolutely no one who has ever attempted to share a home with a member of the opposite sex), sparked a discussion of whether office thermostats are sexist. Or something like that.

The idea was that back in the day when offices contained mostly men in three-piece suits, temperature levels were set for the comfort of those men. Today, as offices tend to contain more equal numbers of men and women, the temperatures remain set for ideal manly comfort standards. There’s a fancy formula engineers use to determine the optimal level of temperature comfort as determined by humidity, air temperature, and mean metabolic rates, etc. The problem, according to the study, is that the formula overestimates the amount of heat produced by a resting woman.

The differences have been attributed to estrogen production and muscle mass to fat ratios, which tend to be different between men and women. I don’t know that I would go so far to call the thermostat a source of inherent workplace sexism, but the struggle is real, and lots of women throughout the workforce carry an extra sweater to the office.

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The secret to my success: a closed door and a space heater.

As someone who works primarily at home, I use the problem to my advantage, because I am the lone female living with three males. Through the winter, my house is always at least 2 (or 3 or 4) degrees colder than I’d like it to be. Yes, when my sons head off to school and my husband to work, I could turn up the thermostat and no one would complain.

Instead, I walk down the stairs and through a long hallway to my hidey hole office in the basement where I close the door and turn on my own personal space heater, before sitting down to work. Pretty soon, the dishes and the errands and the dirty socks begin to call to me, when the words don’t want to flow and the character voices have gone silent. When that happens, all I have to do is step outside of my office into my cold, cold house. I don’t stay there for long.

The Father of Wine Snobbery and Pinterest Magic

On May 1, 1633, thirty-two-year-old beauty Venetia Stanley Digby was found dead in bed in her London home. A popular lady at court, her surprising demise set the city abuzz with rumors, many of them focused on her husband, the grief-stricken Sir Kenelm Digby.

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Sir Kenelm Digby, father of wine snobbery. And Pinterest wine bottle centerpieces. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A popular man himself, Digby was a scholar, an off-and-on Catholic, and a former privateer. He was also a noted chef, alchemist, and enthusiastic supporter of sympathetic medicine (in which treatment was applied to the injury-causing instrument, rather than to the injured).

He was kind of like your favorite crazy uncle who dabbles in a little bit of everything. And who might accidentally kill his wife in the process. Of course this is a hypothetical uncle. I certainly have no such uncle. My uncles are wonderful men who occasionally read this blog.

Though he wasn’t a particularly faithful husband, Digby took Venetia’s death pretty hard. He retreated from his life at court, renewed his devotion to Catholicism, and found solace by throwing himself into his studies. He found greatness at the bottom of a wine bottle. Also in its sides and neck.

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of drinking wine pretentiously. photo credit: NwongPR The Somm Team via photopin (license)

Because it was around this time that England faced a wood shortage that led to an increase in hotter coal-burning furnaces rather than the wood-fed ones typically used for glassmaking. Digby fired up his furnace and went to work producing a dark, thick bottle suited for elegantly storing wine.

Up until this point in history glass hadn’t been up to the task, and if it held wine at all, it was for presentation purposes only. Since the early days of its development in about 3000 BC, glass was generally too thin and delicate for wine.

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This bottle was mocking me.

That is until Sir Kenelm Digby became the father of the modern wine bottle. It’s a good thing he did, too, because before his thick-glassed bottle, wine didn’t get stored and savored and swirled and pretentiously sipped. And even more important than that, there weren’t thousands of empty, standard-sized bottles awaiting magical Pinterest transformation into dreamy wedding centerpieces.

It’s Sir Digby, then, I can thank for the hours and hours I have spent these past few weeks collecting, rinsing, and wrapping wine bottles in yards of twine. One of my nieces is a soon-to-be bride. She needs centerpieces for her reception, and I’m kind of like that favorite crazy aunt who will volunteer to do just about any tedious wedding-related task you require without complaint, though not without a blog post.

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Best. Aunt. Ever. Not that it’s a competition. That I’m totally winning.

Of course my niece has many wonderful aunts who occasionally read this blog, and she has never publicly declared that I am her favorite. But I think we all know.

I also think the bottles turned out pretty well. I know the centerpieces will be beautiful, the ceremony will be perfect, and my niece and her groom will remember their special day for all of their long, happy lifetime together. I also think Sir Kenelm Digby would have been pleased to know to what great use his bottles had been repurposed, as part of a celebration of marriage and love.

 

Every Jiggly Step I Can Get

Early last year I wrote about a fitness challenge I had joined, pledging to walk 2,017 miles in the year 2017. In case you’re curious and don’t like to do math, that comes out to around five and a half miles per day. It’s doable for a fairly active person, which I generally am.

Still, I didn’t make my goal last year. I was close enough that if I assumed I’d walked about twenty miles on a couple of days I missed recording and averaged twelve miles each day for the last two weeks, I would have made it. It didn’t seem worth it. Honestly, I’d done really well until November when I became more focused on writing a novel and eating turkey.

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I don’t know…that looks like a lot of work. Picture by profivideos, via Pixabay

It definitely takes consistent effort and I think it’s safe to say we all have those days when we’re sick, or lazy, or sitting in a chair writing a novel, or driving across the country. It’s stringing too many of those days together that’s the problem.

But as I discovered on a recent road trip to visit my parents in Illinois that last obstacle isn’t so bad. It takes me about two hours to get to their house pretty much regardless of the route I take. Each option comes with drawbacks. The most direct route takes me across the Mighty Mississippi on a scary, crumbly bridge so narrow I’ve seen truck drivers back up rather than meet a vehicle coming across in the other direction.

This time I wisely chose to go another way with thicker traffic, but a much nicer bridge, and then a two lane highway in Illinois that could use a little love and attention and provides plenty of broken, bumpy adventure. But this road has a hidden benefit for those drivers wearing their fitness bands. In the hour I was dodging potholes on that lonely Illinois road, my fitness band credited me with six hundred steps.

And why shouldn’t it? I may not have done the walking myself, but my body surely benefited from the jiggling. At least it might have according to Swedish physician and inventor Gustav Zander, who in the latter half of the 19th century invented some of the earliest forms of gym equipment. Included among Dr. Zander’s creations was the first belt vibrator machine (if you Google that, use caution).

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Her workout clothes are way fancier than mine. By Unknown – https://digitaltmuseum.se/021016402498/balstrackning, Public Domain, vis Wikimedia Commons

This contraption had a belt you’d place around your waist or arm or leg, or I guess wherever your problem areas may be and then it magically vibrated the fat away. Dr. Zander’s wonderful machine provided healthful massage, relieved mental fatigue, rid the body of harmful toxins, and toned muscles. Or it didn’t.

The use of passive exercise machines like the belt vibrator peaked in the early part of the 20th century and surged again through the 1950s and 60s. There’s just something really appealing about getting into shape without wearing legwarmers or doing any actual work at all.

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Who needs workout equipment? Picture by Antranias, via Pixabay

Even today there are numerous products on the market designed to move your muscles for you while you read a book or give yourself a pedicure. Today’s devices generally stimulate muscle contraction using targeted electrical pulses. And though such gadgets may offer some therapeutic benefits, providing you with that beach ready body isn’t one of them. For that, they’re about as effective as Dr. Zander’s original passive jiggle apparatus or my car on a bumpy road.

So maybe jostling car steps shouldn’t count, but since my fitness tracker is just as likely to ignore a quick jaunt across the room or a climb up sixteen flights of stairs, I’m going to assume it more or less evens out. This year’s goal is 2,018 miles and by the time November rolls around, I may decide to sit in a chair and write a novel while eating my body weight in turkey. I’ll need every extra jiggly step I can get.

 

And speaking of novels, there’s exciting news coming down the bumpy pike on that score. I can’t promise you any free steps, but if you want to be among the first in the know, you can sign up to receive email news from me here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1