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.

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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.

Bobbling Along With Style

History has not been especially kind to King George IV of the United Kingdom. Many of his contemporaries described him as selfish, unreliable, and just kind of the worst. He was difficult to work with, indulged frequently in heavy drinking, and he was a pretty terrible husband. But he did have one thing going for him. The man had style.

Referred to as the “First Gentleman of England,” George had tremendous influence on style and taste in the early 19th century. He was particularly passionate about architecture and design, and spared no detail when planning his Brighton Pavilion beginning in 1787. Built after Indian architectural styles, then Prince George chose Asian-influenced décor for the interior. And it’s pretty heard to question the man’s impeccable taste when you realize that this choice led to the incorporation of a bunch of bobbleheads.

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This is a Japanese “nodder” doll that dates to the 16th century, though bobblehead-style dolls are probably older than that. Cleveland Museum of Art [CC0], Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
According to the website of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, which is a real place in Milwaukee, WI in case you ever want to go, George was pretty fond of these Chinese and Japanese dolls with oversized heads attached with string. Perhaps it was because when nudged, they always agreed with him.

Not a great deal seems to be known about the origin of the bobblehead, except that something like it seems to have developed in parts of Asia prior to 1760 or so when it started nodding its way into Europe and became a fun, manufactured product coming out of Germany.

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This could be yours for just $19.95 on Amazon right now. No, seriously.

The bobblehead doll’s popularity has waxed and waned over the years since its introduction to the western world, but it’s been on the rise pretty steadily now since the late nineties when the San Francisco Giants handed out 20,000 big-headed bobbling Willie Mayses to a crowd of enthusiastic fans.

Since that time an army of distorted, acquiescent, cartoon celebrities, athletes, and even Pope Francises has been released upon the world.

And though I hope I’m not selfish or unreliable or just kind of the worst, I have to agree with King George IV on this one. I find bobbleheads pretty adorable and I do have quite a few. Mine are all of the baseball variety, collected from stadium giveaways.

It’s a fun collection that sometimes borders on the ridiculous. In fact, just this past weekend, the promotional giveaway at the stadium I love the most was a double bobblehead featuring two of the all-time greats from the history of the team. Because my husband and I couldn’t go to the game, we bought our nephew a ticket so he could go and collect our keepsake for us.

cardinal bobbleheads
My husband is fond of saying, “There’s no more agreeable activity than dusting a collection of bobbleheads.”

Our prize has now found a new home in our baseball-inspired family room, which probably isn’t all that influential in the style and taste department. But it is a pretty accommodating place to be, surrounded by nodding statues in matching uniforms.

If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you may recall that uniform has a pair of red birds on it. Also, you may recall that I don’t mention the team that wears that uniform by name when they are in the middle of a playoff run. Yes, I realize that’s not rational, but bear with me here. The last time I blogged about my favorite Midwestern flock of baseball-playing birds during a playoff run without using their actual team name, they won the World Series. I’m just doing my part.

With style.

Stupid Holidays, but Milkshakes

In 1936, a man by the name of Earl Prince invented a machine that could make five milkshakes simultaneously. Made possible by the newfangled freon-cooled refrigerator systems, his “Multimixer” represented the greatest leap forward in milkshake-making since Steven Poplawski’s 1922 invention of the blender. Eleven years before that, Hamilton Beach made a drink mixer, which was soon put to good use making milkshakes at soda fountains everywhere.

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I received this Hamilton Beach blender as a wedding gift more than 19 years ago. To the best of my knowledge it has only ever been used to make chocolate milkshakes.

But Prince’s machine was a welcome leap forward because what the American public had come to realize in the forty-seven years since the word “milkshake” first slipped into the English language, was that this thick, chilly beverage was awfully tasty.

Late nineteenth century milkshakes were similar to eggnog in texture and usually contained alcohol. In the early 1900s they received a family friendly facelift with the exchange of whiskey for ice cream and malted milk.

By the time Earl Prince created a way to produce a lot of milkshakes in short order, lending the ability of the then barely emerging fast food industry to get in on the trend, the public was clamoring for them.

I prefer the hand-dipped variety created in a trusty blender. Preferably made with chocolate. Still, I can appreciate the innovation that allows for speed because sometimes you just gotta have a milkshake.

Father's Day Chocolate Milkshake with Bokeh
I’ll celebrate that. photo credit: marrngtn (Manuel) Father’s Day Treat via photopin (license)

And that’s why I was not disappointed to discover that today, September 12th, is a very special made-up holiday here in the United States. Today is National Chocolate Milkshake Day.

I will be the first to admit that here in the US we are maybe a little too obsessed with the stupid holiday. One online source for all things made-up suggests there are more than 1500 weird national holidays that some guy somewhere invented for some probably very silly reason.

But as far as ridiculous made-up holidays go, this is one I can get behind. I’m not sure how far this day of observation stretches back into history, but it’s at least a few years. I have to assume someone made it up because either he owned a shop that sold killer chocolate milkshakes and was looking for a way to drum up some publicity or because he lived near a shop that sold killer chocolate shakes and he was hoping for a discount.

Either way, I’m happy for an excuse to dust off the old blender and celebrate this most excellent day with a chocolate milkshake. Or maybe five.

Happy National Chocolate Milkshake Day!

Research, Cannons, and Great Big Nerds

On March 10, 1842 president of the short-lived Republic of Texas Sam Houston overstepped the limits of his office when he ordered the national archives to be removed from the capital city of Austin and taken to Houston.

Samuel_houston
Sam Houston, a man who is no match for a determined archivist with a cannon. By National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. Philadelphia: D. Rice & A. N. Hart, 1854., Public Domain

A few days earlier Austin had been the site of a camp of nearly a thousand invading Mexican troops under the command of General Rafael Vásquez, but the army had been run out of the city by the time Houston issued his order. And when the wagons arrived to finally carry it out in December of that year, the danger had certainly passed. Since Houston’s goal was most likely to move the capital to his namesake city, that didn’t much matter to him.

It did, however, matter very much to the people of Austin who took their responsibility to house and protect the archive material seriously—so seriously that vigilante Angelina Eberly (not an archivist by trade but certainly one in her heart) led the charge by firing on the government thieves with a cannon.

Few shots were fired overall in what came to be known as the Archive War and no significant blood was shed, but the documents remained in Austin as did the distinction of being the capital city, even after the Republic of Texas became the State of Texas.

Archives are serious business, as those who care for them will not hesitate to tell you. Personally, I am grateful for their vigilance. Because I’m going to confess something to you, dear reader, that you probably won’t find too hard to believe.

I’m a great big nerd.

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Darth Vader. Also probably no match for a determined archivist with a cannon.

I don’t mean that I spend all my time playing video games on YouTube or that I collect replica medieval weaponry or that I know every detail there is to know about the Star Wars Galaxy. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with those pursuits. Except maybe the YouTube thing.

My brand of nerdiness mostly shines through in my obsessive research. I know, if you’ve read this blog much then you are probably giggling about now. It’s true that most of the posts in this space are only sort of researched, and frankly, kind of shoddily. But I make a distinction between what I do in this space and what I do when pursuing the details that inform my historical fiction projects.

I can’t promise I never make a mistake, because I’m sure I do. I probably even overlook the occasional silly anachronism. Some reader somewhere will call me out on it one day and say I should write in a different genre if I can’t even manage to take thirty seconds to Google the etymology of the phrase plays it close to the vest to discover that my character wouldn’t have said that in 1834. As a reader of the historical fiction genre myself I can go ahead and admit we’re a little nerdy and occasionally a little mean.

cannon
I probably won’t face cannon fire to gain access to the archive material I need, but if I make a historical mistake in my novel all bets are off.

So, I do my best to pursue the research as far as I can. For my current work-in-progress, I especially wanted to put my eyeballs on a diary written by one of my historical persons of interest. He’s not a widely known figure and I only discovered the existence of the unpublished diary because of a reference in the bibliography of another book. When I contacted the university library where the source was said to be housed, they couldn’t find it.

I assumed I’d have to give up. Then, not long back, while searching around on the Internet for something else, I found a blog post (some blogs can be a valuable sources of information, just usually not this one) that briefly mentioned the existence of the diary. That’s when I kind of nerded out.

I contacted the library again to find out that the archivist who had written the blog post is now at a different university. I reached out to him there, sent him the link to his post, and a few days later, I had the complete record in my inbox. All I had to do next was send it back to the original library and hope.

And wait, which is what I’m doing now. Because the archivist currently in charge of the diary in question is consulting with an expert to determine whether the physical integrity of the document will allow for safe scanning. If it doesn’t, I may have to travel to the library, which will require a possibly unreasonable amount of effort on my part.

But I get it. I do believe that archives are important enough to protect and maybe even defend with cannon fire if necessary. Because I’m a great big nerd.

 

The Queen of Strength and Beauty

Just two years after he organized what is largely considered the world’s first bodybuilding competition in 1901, acclaimed German muscle man Eugen Sandow met his match in a woman. The story goes that it was at a performance of feats of strength in New York when strongwoman Catherine Brumbach challenged anyone in the audience to outlift her.

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Also known as the “Lady Hercules,” Katie Sandwina was known for being feminine as well as uncommonly strong. University of Washington [Public domain]
Sandow allegedly jumped onto the stage and proceeded to lift a 300-pound barbell to chest height. Catherine then lifted the same weight over her head with one hand. Some historians question the truth of the tale that pits the two heavy lifters against one another. When one considers that Katie spent much of her life working for master promoter P.T. Barnum, it’s easy to suspect it may be little more than a load of hogwash.

But there’s no question Catherine Brumbach, whose stage name became Katie Sandwina after her rumored victory over one of the world’s strongest men, was a powerhouse. Katie grew up in a circus, performing with her very large family. When she was a teenager, her father offered a prize to any man who could outwrestle her. None ever did, but one man did fall in love and propose.

Happily married for more than fifty years, Katie incorporated her husband Max into the show, lifting his 165-pound body above her head with one arm and then tossing him about with ease.

I’m impressed by this woman, whose 5’9”, 200 lb. frame was considered by many to be the ideal image of perfect womanhood. She was even known as “Europe’s Queen of Strength and Beauty.”

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She’s lifting three grown men. And she’s wearing heels. I’d say the title of queen is well deserved. Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain]
I can’t exactly relate, but I have recently begun lifting with my husband. Of course I don’t mean that I’m lifting him over my head like Katie Sandwina would do with her Max. But we do try to get to the gym together about three times a week where he lifts the kind of large weights a large man might lift and then I show him how it’s done by lifting much lighter weights. Super impressively.

And I am getting stronger, though I’m pretty sure no one is referring to me as America’s Queen of Strength and Beauty. Or even Missouri’s. Yet. Katie still has quite a bit of size and strength on me, and I’m a lot more interested in being a little bit healthier and a little bit stronger than I am in becoming the strongest woman in the world. She was, by the way, her record unbroken until 1987 by American weightlifter Karyn Marshall.

Katie performed with Barnum & Bailey’s Circus until she was sixty years old. Then she and Max retired to run a restaurant in New York. There this queen of beauty and strength cooked up a storm and occasionally acted as formidable bouncer until her death in 1952.

Perhaps that should be my goal. By the time we retire, I plan to be strong enough to literally throw someone out of my kitchen should the need arise. Like a queen. And of course, I’ll look beautiful doing it.

Ford, Edison, and the Quest for the World’s Largest

I love that my children are back in school and that our sense of routine has returned. Still, a couple weeks in, I also have to admit that I miss the open road. This was a summer of lots of travel for us.

spam
Unfortunately, due to time constraints and general lack of family interest, I once again missed the Spam Museum in Austin, MN. photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson Monty Python’s Spamalot at Akasaka ACT Theater via photopin (license)

We didn’t go the huge distances we have in some years, but we made it to New Orleans so my kids could cross Louisiana off the list of states they’ve visited. We spent family time in Minnesota fishing and exploring. We took off to Madison, Wisconsin to participate in an Insane Inflatable 5K, and later the boys and I spent a week in Chicago. Rarely did a week pass us by when we didn’t set out in the old family truckster for an adventure at least a couple hours away.

I really couldn’t imagine passing the summer any other way, and I’m not alone. According to a 2019 AAA poll, 100 million Americans planned to vacation this year. Sixty-eight percent of those had plans to travel during the summer months and more than half of all travelers intended to pack up their cars and hit the road.

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Henry Ford and the original family truckster. New York, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It makes sense. A road trip is almost certainly cheaper for a family than air travel, there’s plenty to see across this great big country, and a good car trip means hours of forced family togetherness searching for state license plates. Plus there’re plenty of convenient amenities along the way like gas stations and restaurants and hotels. And how else are you going to see all those quirky tourist attractions like the world’s largest turkey?

A hundred years ago or so when the American road trip was just getting its start, life on the road wasn’t quite as convenient, nor were there as many roads to choose from. Prior to the invention of the automobile, the average American never traveled more than 12 miles from his or her home. I’d probably travel that far to buy a bag of my favorite potato chips.

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Minnesota is the home to many of the world’s largest road trip attractions, including the biggest ball of twine in Darwin, the world’s largest turkey in Frazee, and this enormous boot in Redwing.

It’s likely not surprising that the American road trip developed in large part because of Henry Ford. When in 1908, Ford began producing the Model T (I think the “T” stood for truckster), suddenly families with modest incomes could afford a motor vehicle and they started to get an itch to see the world’s largest ball of twine.

But it was more than just Ford’s cars that inspired a new freedom to the American public. Along with his famous buddies Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burrows, Henry Ford embarked on a series of more or less annual road trips across various parts of the country between the years 1914 to 1924.

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Guinn’s book peeks behind the scenes of these early road trips to explore the motives and strong personalities behind them. It’s a great read!

Because I never take a road trip without a few good books to read, I picked up The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn this summer. The book is fascinating and it made me grateful for the amenities I enjoyed along the way. When the “Vagabonds” first started road tripping, it was pretty rough going, even with an entourage of personal servants to set up camp and cook gourmet meals.

In the pre-Kardashian era of the early twentieth century Ford and his gang were what passed for celebrities. As such their highly publicized trips gained a lot of attention. Soon the American public caught on to the idea and as the traffic increased, so did the infrastructure to support it, including the world’s largest light bulb in Edison, New Jersey. Maybe I’ll hit the road and go see that one next summer.

Fruit-Plants, Cheap Coconuts, and the Need for a Brilliant Editor

The kids are back in school this week and I am back in my little hidey hole in the basement where I churn out silly blog posts and the occasional book. It’s a big year for us. My oldest is starting high school. My youngest is headed to middle school. And I’m, well, probably going to pen the next great American novel or something.

Actually, I am pretty busy trying to get back into the swing of things, starting with some novel editing. If you’ve been following along with this blog for very long, you might recall I wrote what I refer to as a lost novel. It’s a long story (the “lost” part, not the novel, which is pretty average length), but basically, a publisher did me wrong and a book that was supposed to come out never did.

hidey hole
It’s possible that I should also spend some time cleaning up the hidey hole in the basement.

Fortunately, the lost book saga is nearly at an end. The rights will return to me early next year and I hope to release the book myself in February. And that means that right now, I’m spending a lot of time editing.

This is not as difficult as it sounds. Mostly I just have to read through the book for the 4,782nd time and acknowledge that I am incredibly lucky to work with a brilliant editor who calls me out on all my silly mistakes.

She’s also very kind. While I’m sure she rolls her eyes as she corrects my nineteenth dialog formatting error in the space of four pages, not once has she called me idiot, or even made me feel like she might. I really don’t know how she does it. I’d go cross-eyed and just start throwing in commas between every other word.

But that’s why I need a brilliant editor. Because sometimes I do that. And as small and inconspicuous as commas seem, they really do matter.

I recently stumbled on the story of a very important comma that once lost the US government about 2 million dollars. I realize that if you are a politician and not just a normal person, $2 million may not sound like that much money, so let me explain that this was in 1872. Really, that $2 million was more like $40 million in today’s money.commas save lives

Okay, if you are a politician, you’re probably still not all that impressed, but to us regular folk, that’s a pretty pricy comma.

The problem started with a tariff act passed that year which specified that on August 1, 1872, the following imported goods would be duty-free: “fruit, plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation.”

If like me, you’re not so great with commas, you might gloss over the fact that this list seems to suggest that all imported tropical and semi-tropical fruits are no longer subject to tariff. Since the previous tariff act placed a 20% tax on lemons, oranges, pineapples, and grapes, and a 10% tax on limes, bananas, mangoes, pomelos, and coconuts, this had people in the business of pineapple importation pretty excited.

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William Adam Richardson, probably not the best Secretary of the Treasury the US has ever had, and definitely in need of a brilliant editor. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Then Secretary of the Treasury William Richardson was less excited as he explained the act contained a clerk’s typo and that the comma after fruit was meant to be a hyphen. It was fruit-plants, he insisted, that were duty free, and not bananas. The threat of litigation made him roll back his statement and it took two years before an angry congress managed to correct the mistake with a new tariff act. In the meantime, a whole lot of potential government revenue helped line the pockets of some grammar enthusiast pomelo importers.

I’m pretty sure none of my comma mistakes are going to cost me that kind of money. Then again maybe my potential book sales are more substantial than I think. Like A LOT more substantial. Just in case, I’m combing through my almost-found-again book at least one more time with the help of a brilliant editor who I’m pretty sure would also not let me get away with using the word “fruit-plants.”