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.

wine snobs
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.

 

No Shoes Required: My Life as Well-Traveled Sock Monkey

Just over thirteen years ago, a young newlywed couple moved into their first home together in the small city of Rockford, Illinois. You could say that it was the beginning of a wonderful journey on which they would earn a couple of degrees, begin careers, change jobs a few times, travel the world a little bit, have a couple of amazing kids, and own homes at various times in three different states. But theirs wasn’t the only journey to have begun in Rockford, Illinois.

The Swedish-born inventor John Nelson immigrated to the US in 1852 and settled in Rockford where he worked as a carpenter and cabinet maker before establishing several manufacturing businesses of his own. But it turns out what captured Nelson’s attention the most was the quest for a comfy pair of socks (and who could blame him?). He sold his other manufacturing plants and invested all of his energy into producing a machine that could manufacture everyday work socks for the everyday working man.

The Symbol, a large piece of modern art sculpt...
“The Symbol.” at Rockford’s Riverfront Park. It’s nice, but I think a giant sock monkey would have been even better. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After partnering with fellow inventor W. W. Burson, Nelson patented his first knitting machine in 1870 and by 1873, the two had created the world’s first seamless sock produced by an automated process. The partnership between Burson and Nelson dissolved, Nelson founded the Nelson Knitting Company, and then he died in 1883.

But the quest of sock perfection continued with his three sons. The Nelson boys started Forest City Knitting Company, eventually merging with Nelson Knitting to become the world’s dominant sock producer.

Business was humming along, but over the years the industry had attracted a number of competitors, all of them producing brown work socks with a tan toe, top, and heel. To distinguish the original and best out there, Nelson Knitting decided to get a little wild. In 1932 it introduced to the world what it called the “De-Tec-Tip” sock, which was a brown work sock with (and I’m sorry if this sounds a little shocking to more delicate readers) a RED heel.

It was certainly a risky move, but the world was ready for it. Within an hour of the first red-heeled socks hitting the pages of Sears & Roebuck, craft bloggers had begun sewing the first sock monkeys, photographing each step to include with painfully detailed instructions. History has forgotten who was first to pin it to their Pinterest page, but Nelson Knitting was rewarded the patent for everyone’s favorite stuffed animal in 1955.

All buckled up and ready for takeoff!
All buckled up and ready for takeoff!

No worries, however, for the craft bloggers out there because the patent expired in 1970 and since then sock monkeys have been popping up everywhere. And that’s where our two stories come together.

A few Christmases ago, when our sons were very small, my husband received a sock monkey (alas I am not a craft blogger so this one was not homemade). The boys named him “Steve” and he became a permanent fixture in our family culture, taking on quite a mischievous personality (because he is, after all, a monkey).

So fast forward a few months. The not quite as young and not quite as newlywed couple got the opportunity to leave their two young children with Grandma and Grandpa and take off for a week together in Hawaii.

We had gone away for a weekend a few times, but this was the longest I had ever planned to spend away from my little guys. So I was trying to figure out a way to help them know they were on our minds and feel like they were in some way part of our trip. It was my wonderful mother-in-law (and yes, I do mean that sincerely) who suggested that we photograph a favorite stuffed animal along the way and post the pictures so the boys could follow our adventure. We stuffed Steve in a suitcase and we were off.

Steve kicks back at a luau and sips some "pineapple juice."
Steve kicks back at a luau and sips some “pineapple juice.”

Steve has been our family’s travel mascot ever since. When either “Mom” or “Dad” heads out for a conference, Steve travels with us. He always shows up on family vacations. He kept family and friends posted during our cross-country move this past year.

Most recently Steve and I attended the Ozark Creative Writers Conference in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. If you’ve never been there, just trust me when I tell you that a lady walking around taking pictures of her sock monkey doesn’t really garner much attention. At one point I posted a picture of Steve sitting behind a friend’s book table at the conference and captioned it: “Steve is hoping to sell some copies of his self-published memoir entitled No Shoes Required: My Life as a Well-Traveled Sock Monkey.”

The crazy thing is that I’ve had several people tell me they would be happy to buy the book. Now, I’m fond of Steve. And I am delighted to know that his journey and ours began in the same place long before our paths crossed and we started to travel together. But I don’t want to get pigeonholed into the sock monkey genre (Worldcat lists 33 new sock monkey entries for 2013-2014) and I do NOT have time to ghostwrite for a stuffed animal.

I do apologize to Steve’s many fans out there. A blog post will just have to do.

The ladies sure do love him.
The ladies sure do love him.