Piles and Piles of Laundry: What a Pain in the Bustle

On November 16, 1874, an Indiana man by the name of William Blackstone gave his wife what might at first sound like the worst birthday gift ever. A manufacturer of farm equipment, Blackstone was definitely one of those handy fellas to have around, and what he made for the missus was perhaps the first in-home washing machine.

It consisted of a wooden tub that held water and contained pegs designed to agitate the clothing when Mrs. Blackstone turned a hand crank. And though it would be another thirty-four years until the first electric washer came along, and then another forty years or so before the electric washer started to become a common home appliance, I think it’s safe to say that the gift made the woman’s life a little easier.

electric washer
Yep, that’s when women really had it made, just whiling away the day rocking and sewing in their high heels, not having to deal with any of those pesky servants demanding raises. By Seattle Electric Washer Co. – The Argus (Seattle), April 24, 1920, p. 6. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7183460

Because according to Catharine Beecher, sister to writer Harriet Beecher Stowe and promoter of education of and by women (as long as they didn’t go so far as to think they ought to get to vote), laundry was (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here), “The biggest pain in the housewife’s bustle.”

I don’t doubt that it was. Before the washing machine, women could be found on laundry day soaking their family’s clothes and then scrubbing them with caustic lye soap against washboards or pounding them around with a stick in a barrel, then boiling (while stirring to prevent scorching), rinsing, rinsing again, drying, and ironing (without the benefit of a handy steam iron that plugs into the wall, and yet still sees little use in my house).

Obviously, these women didn’t get much else done on laundry day. I can relate. Sort of. If you are an especially wonderful person who reads this blog regularly, you may have noticed I failed to post last week. And if you also follow me on any other forms of social media (like Twitter or Facebook, and if you do, then you are an absolutely amazingly wonderful person), then you might have noticed I’ve been pretty silent on those as well.

maytag
A few generations after the first Blackstone, but good to know that it has a “smooth-running, dependable motor, built [just] for the woman to operate.” photo credit: JoeInSouthernCA 1933 Maytag Washing Machine Newspaper Advert via photopin (license)
Initially that’s because I was on a vacation trip with my family, though lately, my absence has been more directly related to the piles and piles of laundry produced by such a trip. Honestly, I don’t know how four people, at least two of whom most of the time couldn’t care less whether or not they wear clean clothes, can produce so much laundry. I’ve tried to do that math. It doesn’t work out.

Of course I haven’t just been doing laundry. I’ve also been trying to organize and unpack everything else, while working to get back to some semblance of a summer routine, in which I arrange my children’s social lives, constantly fighting them on their use of electronics. I’ve also been exercising to try to lose the extra five vacation pounds I just put on. And I’ve been working on putting together a syllabus for a class I’ll be teaching in the fall, when I haven’t taught the course in more than ten years. And I’ve been catching up on e-mails, and volunteer stuff, and my reading/reviewing backlog, and short stories with looming deadlines, and, and, and…

socks
Finally, all that remains of the vacation laundry is one mostly empty basket of clean, unmatched socks. Surely someone has invented a machine that would take care of this for me. Now, that’s something I’d want for my birthday!

So as the person who does most of the laundry in my house, I am definitely grateful for the ability to toss the clothes in the washer and forget about them until they smell mildewy and I have to run the cycle again. Actually, I’m not sure the convenience saves me that much time, though. Because if I had to spend a full day soaking and scrubbing and rinsing and ironing, maybe I wouldn’t try so hard to overextend myself in other ways.

I hope that’s not what Mrs. Blackstone found when her husband gave her a washing machine for her birthday, when all she probably really wanted was jewelry a chance to read a book without having to listen to a child drone on and on and on about Minecraft/Star Wars/Lord of the Rings.

I may be projecting a little bit there.

I’m sure Mr. Blackstone’s wife loved her gift. It wasn’t long until the neighbors got wind of it and soon he was out of the farm equipment business and into the manufacturing of washing machines instead. The invention was a success, and I hope it helped Mrs. Blackstone get what she really wanted for her next birthday, just a little extra time to post to her blog, or to at least read a few chapters of a good book in peace.

Popcorn for One

This past Saturday night, I did something new and wonderful. My husband spent the day with an old buddy of his and my children both attended an event Saturday night, so I found myself with some time on my hands at the end of a long, stressful week.

I thought about using the time to get some more long, stressful work done, but then I remembered that Beauty and the Beast was showing at the movie theater nearby and that I kind of wanted to see it, and no one else in my family did.

So, I bought a ticket and went to the movies by myself for the first time ever. Maybe it’s strange that a nearly forty-year-old American 21st century woman had never had that experience, and maybe you go to the movies by yourself all the time, but this was a first for me.

I bought some popcorn that I didn’t share with anyone. And when the person sitting beside me had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the movie, it wasn’t my problem.  In fact, once the lights went down and the movie started, I didn’t even notice the people next to me, because not one of them whispered to me, spilled his drink on me, or buried his eyes in my shoulder at the scary bits.

IMG_4974
Just one, please. With the perfect amount of butter.

I never entertained the fleeting thought that I should have chosen a different film because my movie-going neighbor clearly wasn’t enjoying this one. I just watched as the story of Belle and her Beast overwhelmed my senses and the stress of the week melted away in the dark auditorium.

And maybe that’s how it should be. After all, movie watching hasn’t always been the group activity it is today when movie-goers tend to grab their families, their sweethearts, or their rowdy group of friends, split a giant tub of popcorn, and sit back to enjoy the show.

When, on May 20, 1891, Thomas Edison first unveiled a working prototype of his laboratory’s Kinetocope, about 150 women gathered round to enjoy the experience, one at a time. The women were attending a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, and among them was Mina Edison, wife to the famous inventor.

Kinetoscope
Edison Laboratory’s Kinetoscope, what a movie theater looked like in 1891. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The device these ladies got to see was a large box with a small peephole in the top so that one person could peer inside and see a picture that moved. Edison (and more so his assistants, William Dickson and team) wasn’t the only one making progress toward moving pictures at the time, but when the ladies got a chance to look into the box and see William Dickson waving his hat at them, it was certainly a wholly new experience for them.

And it happened to the right group. Because the National Federation of Women’s Clubs had been developed to support women’s organizations engaged in improving lives through volunteerism. These were some hard working ladies, tackling some of the biggest civic issues of the day including women’s suffrage and child welfare. They had likely come to the conference exhausted, in need of encouragement and empowerment, and also rest and refreshment.

Though the moving picture they saw lasted only a few seconds, I have to assume they enjoyed their moment of solitude and focused entertainment, when in the midst of all these many people, each lady got a turn to see Dickson’s picture greet only her.

The experience caught on. Edison’s team also patented the Kinetographic Camera and by autumn of 1892, the movie viewing system had been fitted with a nickel slot and was headed into production. The first public Kinetoscope viewing parlor opened in New York in April of 1894, and soon the machines were in several major cities and in traveling exhibits throughout the United States. Folks lined up with their nickels, often paying a whole quarter to spend a few minutes jumping down a line of movie boxes to view a series of very short films.

Personally I’d find that a little frustrating and I’m glad that film soon moved into a bigger venue that could accommodate a larger audience. If not for that, we’d never have come to enjoy the hilarity of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or gotten to listen to rustle of hundreds of newspapers unfolding at the boring part of Rocky Horror Picture Show, or squirm in discomfort when an infected someone sneezes in the crowded movie theater during Outbreak. And we’d never miss a pivotal scene in order to accompany a kid to the bathroom.

Don’t get me wrong here. I still enjoy going to the movies with my family and friends. I think I even prefer it most of the time, but this is definitely an experience I will repeat when I get the chance. The movie was good. It’s a familiar story (my friend Pat recently wrote this fascinating post showing the Beast through the years), but it was well done with talented actors, strong voices, and plenty of Disney magic performed just for me. Most importantly, I did not leave in the middle to go walk with anyone to the bathroom. And my popcorn was just the way I like it.

Growing Up is Overrated

In 1959, John Scurlock discovered his employees engaging in a surprising activity. A successful engineer, Scurlock had lent his inventive expertise to both the oil and gas industry and to projects at NASA, and then decided to turn his attention to tennis, a sport he loved. What he came up with was a rapidly inflating cover that could be spread out to protect a clay tennis court at the first inkling of rain.

His invention may have been great for that, had his employees not discovered that it was also quite bouncy. What Scurlock quickly realized was that his adult employees might actually have been incapable of resisting the urge to bounce and that what he’d invented was not a tennis court cover at all. Instead it was a play structure that he called the Space Walk.

Sport_Arena_Bounce_house_15x19_2014-02-03_14-15
It was really only a matter of time before Bounce Houses and elite sporting events got together. By User:Azbounce4kids (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Over the next decade, Scurlock’s invention got a little safer (with the addition of walls) and he entered the rental business, providing hours of bounce house fun for birthday parties, school fairs, and company picnics. But even though it has obvious adult appeal, bounce castles have generally been considered the realm of children.

Until now.

For the past couple of years, a new themed run has swept across the US and Canada, called the Insane Inflatable 5K. The event is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a 5K with about a dozen inflatable obstacles set up along the route. Participants climb, jump, slide, fall, and yes, bounce. Often on purpose. Sometimes on their backsides. Because it’s super fun.

fb_img_1470925308671.jpg
These were some (sort of) serious obstacles. It was kind of like a short Tough Mudder, except for people who don’t like to get muddy and really aren’t that tough.

While there’s no age restriction for the event, the participants are pretty overwhelmingly adults. At least that was true at the one in which I recently participated.

 

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you may have stumbled across the fact that I believe in my heart of hearts that running is stupid. But (and I realize that this is a bit hypocritical of me) I also really enjoy participating in race events. I love the camaraderie that comes from accomplishing something challenging in the midst of so many other people who are also accomplishing something challenging. I love the cheering and encouragement that comes from fellow race participants and from those who are watching from the sidelines. And, I admit it, I can’t resist a silly theme.

So when I got the opportunity to participate in the Insane Inflatable (or as we more often referred to it, the Bouncy House 5K), I couldn’t pass it up. In fact, when the group I was originally planning to register with began to waver in their enthusiasm, I found another group willing to go on an earlier date.

20160806_101701
The event wasn’t timed, but I did get a medal. So I’m basically an Olympian now.

 

Running may be stupid, but bouncy houses are super fun and as it says on the back of my new silly themed race shirt, “Growing up is overrated.”

John Scurlock’s employees realized that in 1959 and an amazing industry was born.

Lessons from a Typewriter

On the wall above the desk where my computer sits is a beautiful painting of an old typewriter. It hangs there I suppose because it makes a sort of sense in this space where fingers fly across the more modern QWERTY keyboard composing e-mails and blog posts and the next great American novel. But when I reflect on the story of how the typewriter came to be, I think there’s more to it than that.

800px-TypewriterPatent1868
Sholes received a patent for his typewriter 148 years ago today (June 23, 1868). Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In July of 1867 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, mechanic Carlos Glidden passed on a Scientific American article to his friend, printer Christopher Latham Sholes. The article detailed a recently invented writing machine called the pterotype. Sholes and a partner had recently been somewhat successful designing a number printing machine and when he looked at the device his friend showed him, Sholes thought he might just be able to do better.

He quickly set to work and soon used a converted telegraph key to type the letter “W.” Excited about their initial success Sholes and Glidden had a model with a full alphabet and some punctuation by September of 1867. The only thing left to do was to get the machine to market, which was a long and frustrating experience during which Sholes remarked on several occasions that he wouldn’t recommend the no-good invention to anyone anyway.

Finally in 1873, after receiving an intriguing typewritten query letter, sewing machine and firearms manufacturer E. Remington and Sons asked for a demonstration at their New York headquarters. Seeing what the machine could do, they wasted no time in manufacturing a thousand of them, and optioned 24 thousand more.

Mark_Twain_1883
Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi became the first manuscript ever typed on a typewriter. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Initially the Remington typewriter wasn’t a commercial success. Despite the claim that a skilled person could produce 57 words per minute, and a stamp of semi-approval from Mark Twain who had a love/hate relationship with one of the earliest models, the machine cost a whopping $125. The trouble was that at that price, the typewriter cost significantly more than a pen, which came with significantly fewer glitches.

It would take a number of revisions to the initial design, a more reasonable price tag, and the help of a good marketing plan to lead to the typewriter’s eventual success. Sholes, who gained little fortune from his invention, plugged away at improvements for the rest of his life, never really satisfied that he’d gotten it exactly right.

536px-S&g1
And this sure is prettier than my computer. By User:Kosmopolitat [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Near the end of his life, however, he had this to say: “Whatever I may have felt in the early days of the value of the typewriter…I am glad I had something to do with it. I built it wiser than I knew, and the world has the benefit of it.”

So a beautiful painting of an old typewriter hangs above my computer because when I sit down at the keyboard, I want to reflect that when my project is at long last complete, and has come out perhaps even wiser than I knew, I will be glad to have been a part of it. And I want to be reminded that in addition to inspiration, great ideas take time and hard work, and often a lot of revision. An intriguing query letter and killer marketing plan won’t hurt either.

 

Note: I originally wrote this article over a year ago for Saturday Writers of St. Charles County, Missouri, but thought on this 148th anniversary of the original patent for the Sholes typewriter, I would share it in this space. As a writer, I am grateful for the invention of the typewriter. I am even more grateful that I don’t have to use one.

Lessons that Last Centuries: Celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week

Sometime right around the dawn of the nineteenth century, teacher extraordinaire James Pillans, headmaster of Old High School in Edinburgh, Scotland, had a problem. He had a bang-up geography lesson to share with his students, but he didn’t have the most effective equipment with which to do it. Like teachers have to do far too often, he cobbled together what he needed from what supplies he could come up with, and in this case, it worked pretty well.

Bust_of_Prof_James_Pillans_by_Peter_Slater,_1852,_Old_College,_University_of_Edinburgh
James Pillans, educator extraordinaire. Believed to be responsible for creating the coolest classroom job in elementary school. By Stephencdickson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/ licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Like students as far back as the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians, these eager young people had personal slates on which to write and re-write their work. But what Pillans decided he really needed was one much larger slate at the front of the room, on which he could present his lesson to the entire class at one time.

That’s just what he constructed. He connected the slates and hung them in the classroom. The chalkboard was born. It was such a simple, brilliant idea, that the concept grew quickly. In America the first classroom blackboard was used at West Point by instructor George Baron. By the middle of the 19th century, nearly every classroom in America had one.

And because of a surprise discovery last summer, we now have an amazing glimpse of just what kinds of things they might have been used for in the early part of the twentieth century. Because during a summertime classroom renovation project at Emerson High School in Oklahoma City, workers uncovered blackboards from 1917 behind classroom walls.

The really cool thing was that they actually had stuff written on them. The boards, found in several classrooms, were covered with lessons and drawings, and even the names of some students. One featured a multiplication wheel, unfamiliar to any of the teachers. There were beautiful drawings of Thanksgiving turkeys, lists of spelling words, and lessons on cleanliness, all beautifully preserved.

5509319107_7fdf264c3f_o
I can almost smell the chalk dust. photo credit: Red Chalk via photopin (license)

Of course as chalk is intended to be a temporary medium, the boards obviously present a preservation problem. Fear of breakage prevents them from being relocated. So the school has covered some of the boards with plexiglass for display, hoping to preserve the lessons for another hundred years. Others have been re-covered behind walls, as Emerson is still a school building in use, and not all of the space can be sacrificed.

This past January a few more old chalk boards were found and the staff and students are pretty geeked out about the whole thing. Math teacher Sherry Read, whose classroom contains one of the old chalkboards, is particularly delighted because she points out that the drawings were left intentionally.

In an era before so many schools transitioned to using dry erase boards and markers instead of blackboards and dusty chalk, it was pretty much standard procedure to clean off the board and bang out the erasers at the end of the day. I remember in my elementary days (which were not a hundred years ago), that was the classroom job we fought over most.

But when these chalkboards were to be covered up, teachers from back in the day decided to leave behind evidence of what was happening in their classrooms, because if by chance someday, the boards were discovered behind the wall, they would be a record of the kinds of things going on in the classroom years ago. What a cool lesson for future generations to learn.

20160505_094045
The chalkboard wall in my office, where I teach myself bang-up geography lessons. Hopefully James Pillans was a more gifted artist than I am. And didn’t have to contend with a closet door between Pennsylvania and Ohio.

And that, to me, is the very coolest part of this story. Teachers teach. It’s what they do. Their methods may change over time as they discover new ways to motivate and inspire their students, but teachers have always been an innovative, creative, inspiring, and self-sacrificing bunch.

I am sharing this story today not only because it’s awesome, but also because this is Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States. I hope all the teachers out there are having a great week as we rapidly approach the end of what I’m sure at times has been a very long school year. Because even though you are probably underpaid, overworked, and may generally feel underappreciated, your lessons last lifetimes; and your influence, centuries.

Thank you.

Famous First Words: Of All the Things They Could Have Said

Today marks the 140th anniversary of a momentous occasion in the history of human communication. March 10, 1876 was the day Alexander Graham Bell, the sort-of inventor of the telephone, uttered into his famous device, “Come here! I want to see you!” The man who heard those words from the next room was Thomas A. Watson.

Actor_portraying_Alexander_Graham_Bell_in_an_AT&T_promotional_film_(1926)
This man is not a telephone inventor, but he once played the role of Alexander Graham Bell, who according to some historians, wasn’t either. Film commissioned by AT&T. (Early Office Museum.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Though the message wasn’t glamorous, it was kind of genius. If Watson responded by ducking into the room, Bell would immediately know his message had been received and understood and they would know that they’d finally invented the device that would be sure to change the world.

Watson did receive the message, or at least close enough to it. He would later report that Bell had said, “Come here! I want you!” And of course, that’s how the children’s game of Telephone was invented.

Still, the world was sufficiently impressed. The well-connected Bell obtained a patent, edging out the claims of electrical engineer Elisha Gray and other telephone-like inventors who are each worthy of mention by a more thorough or trustworthy blog than this one.

But no matter where the somewhat controversial credit for the telephone’s invention should fall, there’s little question that Bell was responsible for launching it into commercial viability, maybe in part because he handled the pressure of those first words so beautifully. Because to me, that would be the most terrifying part of getting in on the invention of a communication method with the potential to take off.

268517515_59e6717d88_o
I don’t know what words were first to be uttered over a walkie-talkie, but given that the device wound up being called a “walkie-talkie,” I’m guessing the lost words weren’t terribly creative. photo credit: mob on the radio via photopin (license)

 

I know that I couldn’t handle such pressure, because a week ago, my sons had some allowance money burning holes in their pockets. They begged me to take them to a store so they could spend some of their hard-earned cash.

What they decided to buy was a set of walkie-talkies, with a video component so they can see one another as they’re talking. It’s pretty much just a lower tech version of FaceTime, exciting for them because our family has not yet reached the era of kiddo smart phones.

They’re really pretty cool little toys and the boys have had a lot of fun with them. But that first night we brought them home, my youngest, who lacks patience for such things, disappeared to play with something else while his older brother and I figured out the new walkie-talkies. We dug them out of their many ridiculous layers of plastic packaging, installed the appropriate batteries, and followed the instructions to synch them.

Then my son ran to another room and yelled, “Say something, Mom!”

I admit that for a second or two, I panicked a little. It felt like a momentous occasion, the breaking in of brand new walkie-talkies. If I said something boring or pointless, I would definitely lose cool mom points. If, on the other hand, I took a chance and ended up saying something stupid, my words might live on in embarrassing family lore.

I briefly thought through my options:

  1. The practical approach, like Bell’s first telephone call to Watson: “Come Here! I want to see you!” (perhaps not so practical when I can already see an image of him in the device).
  2. The highfalutin approach, like Samuel Morse communicating from DC to Baltimore, for the first time with the telegraph: “What hath God wrought?” (sure to garner epic mockery in the annals of family history)
  3. The seasonal approach, like that of Neil Papworth  to the phone of Richard Jarvis, demonstrating the world’s first text message: “Merry Christmas” (hardly appropriate at the beginning of March)
  4. The careless approach, like Ray Tomlinson’s 1971 note to himself in the first successful e-mail: “most likely…‘QWERTYIOP’ or something similar.” (Perhaps it will take an FBI investigation to uncover what happened to the “U”)
  5. The taunting approach, like Motorola’s Martin Cooper to his AT&T rival Joel Engel in the first successful cell phone call: “I’m ringing you just to see if my call sounds good at your end.” (That’s just not very sportsman like.)

    20160310_090527
    But seriously, it wouldn’t hurt the kid to clean his room.

In the end I went with the mom approach: “Time to clean your room!” It turned out, the darn audio didn’t work. But the video worked just fine, because I clearly saw my son stick his tongue out at me before he rushed into the room and grabbed the walkie-talkie from my hand to take it to his brother.

It occurred to me that perhaps what Bell meant to say to his assistant was, “Come here! I want you…to clean up this dreadful experiment!” But Watson, being no dummy, hurried into the room with a big smile on his face. And history was made. Good thing, too, because if not, 140 years later, we might all still be communicating by terribly pretentious telegram.

Bald Might Be Better

On October 8, 1905 in London, German-born hairdresser Karl Nessler carried out the first successful public demonstration of a permanent hair wave process. Nessler applied sodium hydroxide to the long hair of Katherine Laible, wrapping sections of it around a dozen or so 2-pound brass rollers electrically heated to 212˚F. He then suspended the rollers above Laible’s head from an elaborate chandelier contraption so she wouldn’t be burned as she waited the six hours necessary for her new do to be done.

Turn of the century ad for Nessler's Permanent Wave Process. rough translation :
Turn of the century ad for Nessler’s Permanent Wave Process. Rough translation : “Better than bald!” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The demonstration was promising and it led to a 1909 patent held by Kessler who continued to improve his permanent wave machine up until he was subjected to internment during World War I. After the interruption to his career, Nessler immigrated to the US, changed his name to Charles Nestle, and grew a successful hairdressing business that included branches in major cities across the country.

But as far as I’m concerned, Charles Nestle is not the hero in this story. That title belongs to Katherine Laible, his incredibly supportive wife. Because before the successful demonstration of 1905, in addition to the chemical and heat experimentation on wigs, there had been at least two previous attempts to put permanent waves into a woman’s locks.  Katherine was the guinea pig then, too.

Six Hours. Hooked up to this. That better have been a really good perm. By Stillwaterising (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Six Hours. Hooked up to this. That better have been a really good perm. By Stillwaterising (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
And at least twice she wound up bald, with painful burns on her scalp. Obviously she was a much better wife than I am, because she kept letting him try. I often don’t even return to a hairdresser a second time if I don’t like the way my cut turned out.

Actually, I’ve been on a quest for the perfect haircut for about two-and-a-half years. The trouble is that when we lived in Oregon, for the first time in my life, I had great hair, like the kind of great that would make strangers stop me on the street and ask where I got it done.

Then we moved 2000 miles away and though I tried, I couldn’t persuade my hairstylist to move with us. Since that time, I have been to probably a half dozen salons, scoured family snapshots and determined that no one ever takes a picture of the back of my head, and made a fool of myself asking countless perfect-haired strangers where they got their dos. So far no one has successfully duplicated my cut.

photo credit: You're a good cop, Velez via photopin (license)
On second thought, bald might be better. photo credit: You’re a good cop, Velez via photopin (license)

But no one has yet burned away all of my hair, leaving me blistered and bald, either. Nor have I had to sit for six hours strung up by a machine that looks like it is more likely to suck out my brain than give me fabulous hair. So maybe I should take a lesson from Katherine Laible and give someone another chance. Or maybe I should honor this 110th anniversary of Charles Nestle’s success and just get a perm.