The Tchotchke Two-Step

Open_cardboard_box_husky

At our house we have a semi-annual ritual dance known as the Box and Bin Shuffle. Its start date is not tied to the calendar, nor is it tied to a moon cycle. Instead it occurs when my husband hears these magic words uttered: Chance of accumulating snow. This year, the call came late—in deepest, darkest January—but we both recognized his call to arms when the Weather Channel announced the threat of four inches of the white stuff last weekend: Time to get the cars in the garage.

Now most reasonable people consider the garage to be a place to park one’s car(s) on a full-time basis. After all, this is definition one in any major dictionary. Most reasonable people are not married to my husband, however. We cannot always park cars in the garage because my husband suffers from an affliction known as “I might need that”-itis. In other words, he is a pack rat. After nearly 30 years of marriage, I finally have him on the road to recovery; so the inside of our house is no longer cluttered with stuff, but the garage is one of his last holdouts.

Our garage is where old computers go to die. There are jars of bits and bobs that might come in handy—someday—and boxes of old games and toys from when the kids were small. No one needs or wants to play the Sponge Bob memory game now. My husband even admits we do not need these things; so in the warm months, he pulls them out to sort them. It is excruciating to watch him decide what to keep, what to throw away, and what to donate. We disagree. Sometimes vehemently. To the point that I have now abdicated all responsibility for the garage. Why? I like staying married to him.

This last summer, our very organized daughter (a gene that clearly comes from my side of the family) helped him sort through everything. She placed like items in boxes and labeled them all. There were several trips to Goodwill and headway was made. But then August rolled around and she had to leave for band camp and other college things—although I thought seriously about asking her to take a gap year to finish the job. So, the boxes stayed pretty much where they were through the fall and into early winter. And my car sat on the driveway. Until the battle cry came once again: Snow.

And so he stood in the garage and said he would move things so I could get my car in there. I said, “Some of this stuff could just go back to the shed.” After all we were done mowing the lawn for now, and the kids had moved all their stuff back to college, so we didn’t need the empty camp trunks and such. My husband looked sheepish. “There’s no room.” Now I was gobsmacked. How is there no room in the shed when a bunch of this stuff had obviously come from there? Never mind. I didn’t want to know. Evidently, the pack rat recovery program is a work in progress.

So, he shuffled boxes to one side. Stacked bins on top of one another. “It’s all still labeled from this summer,” he said. “It’ll be easy to sort out next spring.” I didn’t say a word. In the past, I’ve threatened to donate the lot, but he says we can’t just do that. Some of it is important.

And the thing is, some of it is. It doesn’t help that we are at that life stage where our parents’ things are filtering their way to us. “It needs to stay in the family,” my mother says, playing on my sense of tradition and family history. “We knew you liked that stuff,” my sister-in-law said, handing over several boxes of papers from my husband’s side of the family. She was ostensibly here for a visit, but based on the number of boxes she pulled out of her trunk, I suspect she really just wanted her own garage cleared out.

And it’s true I do like this stuff. I like old birth certificates and family pictures. It’s fun to see my husband’s old report cards. I am just not sure I need his siblings’ old report cards or his unlabeled family pictures. Is that Great Grandma Sadie or some random former friend? Who knows! Someday, I may get to put these items in the recycling, but it is a process to get my husband to that point. I tried to instill the “if you haven’t used it or thought of it in two years, you don’t need it” rule. He upped it to five. Or maybe ten in certain cases. Oh, who am I kidding? We still have baby-proofing items in the attic. The kids are turning 21 this year.

And so, here we are. The threatened accumulating snow last weekend never materialized, but it is only a matter of time. He took a few more boxes to Goodwill this week. Baby steps. And I can, in fact, get my car in the garage now.

His still sits on the driveway.

 

Text: © 2016 Rebecca Bigelow;
Photo: Public domain from Wikimedia Commons


Resources:

The Ridiculously Thorough Guide to Decluttering Your Home. The website is for a dumpster rental place, but they actually have a lot of great advice for people who want to organize and declutter. If you live with your own pack rat, your mileage may vary.

 

Advertisements

False Advertising? Coca Cola and the English-Only Debate

Sunday, Coca Cola had a Super Bowl ad that set off a firestorm on the Internet.

Some people objected to the fact that “America, the Beautiful” was sung in multiple languages, not just English. The ad featured seven additional languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Keres, Mandarin, Senegalese-French, Spanish, and Tagalog. Some of the more printable Internet responses were along the lines of #Boycott Coke and “This is America, speak English.” As is wont to happen on the Internet, civil discourse quickly devolved. Racist comments and hashtags were rampant, and I was left shaking my head in frustration with some of my fellow Americans.

I was also left wondering: Just how many languages are spoken in the United States anyway?

Making Every Language Count

It turns out that this is not an easy question to answer. How many living languages there are in the world is itself open to debate. Different sources group dialects differently and decide whether the language is unique or an offshoot dialect of another language. For example, there are many dialects in Chinese—thirteen with more than two million native speakers each. Sometimes these are counted separately (as Mandarin, Wu, and so on) and sometimes they are lumped together in different ways, the broadest way, of course, being simply “Chinese.” Taking one source, for the sake of argument, Ethnologue currently lists 7,105 living languages. Interestingly, that number is up more than two hundred languages since the U.S. Census Bureau cited the same source in 2011. (Not sure what is happening there, but likely it is simply different categorizing of dialects and unique languages.)

The U.S. Census Bureau took Ethnologue’s number in 2011 (then 6,909) and distilled that into groupings of 381 languages spoken in the United States. They asked the census questions “Does this person speak a language other than English at home?” and “What is this language.” The respondent self-reported and filled in a blank for the second question. The census people grouped those answers into the aforementioned 381 languages. In their report they list thirty main languages and lump the rest into categories of others. Tagalog (one of the languages used in Coke’s ad), for example, is listed separately, but “Other Pacific Island Languages” are grouped together. Navajo has its own listing, but Keres (another Native American language, which was also used in the ad) would fall into the “Other Native American Languages” category.

So the “this is America, speak English” sentiment is problematic to begin with because, while likely thousands of languages (as recognized by Ethnologue) are spoken in the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau recognizes 380 language groupings besides English as being spoken here. “But!” the Internet sputters, “English is the language of Americans! Those people came from somewhere else! They should learn to speak our language.” Setting aside the issue that many of these people also speak English well, remember that the Pacific Island category, for example, covers Hawaiian (an official language of Hawaii, along with English), Chamorro (an official language of Guam), and Samoan (an official language of American Samoa). All three languages are spoken by people native to those islands, but Hawaii, Guam, and American Samoa are, respectively, a state and two territories of the United States. The people who live there are recognized as either U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals (both groups can freely travel within the United States, but there are differences in voting rights for the territories). And let’s not forget the indigenous people who speak a variety of Native American languages, including the aforementioned Keres. I think it is safe to say that the ancestors of these people were here long before my English-speaking ancestors showed up to the party.

English Only, Please?

But if we ignore our native populations (admit it, we’re pretty good at it after all!), when Europeans did finally show up to colonize the place, they spoke three main languages: English, Spanish, and French. And remnants of those colonizers live on in languages spoken by people born here, in places like Louisiana and Florida, where French Creole still exists, and Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, where Spanish is still spoken and whose people are U.S. citizens. Again, the Internet may point out that the British Colonies prevailed and thrived (for the most part—see the story of the lost British Colony at Roanoke, which did not end well), and it was these colonists who won independence and started our nation. Of course, even the British colonists spoke a variety of languages (Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, for example, both of which a few thousand people still speak at home today in the United States). And as people immigrated here (either by choice or by force), they brought even more languages and traditions—adding to the polyglot nature of our country.

But How Do You Say That in English?

And English, being a great adaptive language, absorbed thousands of words from these other languages.  This has been going on for centuries, but a list of loanwords acquired by English since the Colonial period includes: cavalry, cachet, and clique from French; armadillo, armada, and adobe from Spanish; pizza, pasta, and piano from Italian; bagel, kibbitz, and schmuck from Yiddish; avatar, karma, and yoga from Sanskrit; bungalow, pajamas, and shampoo from Hindi; jazz, yam, and zebra from African languages; and moose, potato, and squash from Native American languages. We claim these words as our own, but they didn’t start out that way. Never fear, however! We also loan English words to other languages. I am sure the French are grateful for le parking and le weekend and German parents may want to hire der babysitter so they can have an evening out.

Even our American English is geographically specific. What do you call a meat-filled sandwich on a long roll? What do you call the shoes you wear on your feet when you are in gym class? What do you call a fizzy soft drink (like Coca Cola)? Your answers help linguists pinpoint your language origins. Even syntax is different from region to region. My British-by-birth husband speaks English, but even after more than a quarter century of marriage we still find the odd phrase, word, or syntax that has the other one saying, “What did you say?” Is his brand of British English okay with the Internet or should he speak exclusively in American English since he lives here now? And what about slang? Should that be allowed or not? Should we assume all those people clamoring on the Internet for Americans to speak English mean Standard American English? If so, can we apply that rule to written English on the Internet? As an editor and writer, I grow weary of the poor grammar and spelling I see there, but we all make mistakes—even editors and writers—so I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t help keep America beautiful, but it does help keep conversation civil.

Ownay Atwhay? 今度は何なの?Que faire maintenant? Was nun? ¿Y ahora qué? Sasa nini? Na te aha?**

More than a thousand Standard American English words later, I’m not sure where this leaves us. To recap: Coca Cola put together a nice ad with a multilingual version of “America, the Beautiful”; the Internet exploded; Americans speak (and sing) in lots of languages, not just English; and even our English isn’t as English as it used to be. It’s exhausting. We probably all need a Coke (soda, pop, tonic, fizzy drink, or whatever you want to call your soft drink of choice—or heck, it’s a free country, have a Pepsi even) and to chill a little. Sip it while repeating (in your language of choice): there’s no place like home.… Beautiful, America.

~~~~~~~~~

**Pig Latin translation by me; translations of Japanese, French, German, Spanish, Swahili, and Maori by Google Translate.

Sources:

Text © 2014 by Rebecca Bigelow; ad © 2014 Coca Cola

Ten Things I ♥ about NYC

I grew up in New England. New York City, with all its bustling excitement, was about three hours away. We took several school fieldtrips there. My family would also visit my grandfather—a retired professor at Columbia, who still lived a few steps from that venerable institution.

Twelve years ago this week, the unthinkable happened in the city I love to visit. It hurts to watch destruction and carnage anywhere, but this was particularly painful because it was a place I had visited (I had been to the top of the World several times), so I could imagine everything as it happened. The terrible loss of life and emotions of that day and those following will be forever writ on my heart and that of everyone who experienced that awful day. Yesterday, the anniversary of that horrible day, there were plenty of memorials to those tragic events. But I don’t want to revisit that in this blog. I want to celebrate New York City and what I love about it—then and now.

1. Theatre. I have vivid memories of seeing shows with my school and my family. We saw plays, we saw musicals, and we saw ballet. I can still recall the thrill and awe of the 40-foot Christmas tree rising from below the state at Lincoln Center during George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. It was one of my first theater-going experiences and the pageantry thrilled my seven-year-old heart. How did they get that huge tree to grow in the theatre? It was magic. It still is.

P1040061

2. Museums. Fieldtrips are supposed to be educational. Our school day in New York usually included the American Museum of Natural History or the New York Hall of Science. In part, my lifelong love affair with history and knowledge began in NYC: the life-sized blue whale that hung over one of the exhibit halls, the dioramas of Native Americans, the bones of dinosaurs that once wandered the valley where I lived—millions of years separating our existence. All of this and more is on display. New York allowed me to explore King Tut’s tomb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and modern art at the Guggenheim. Heaven for the girl who would go on to write the blog Curiosity Seldom Pays. (Although I will confess to feeling that I could easily replicate some of the modern art—a canvas that is entirely red? Who can’t do that?)

3. Standing in history’s shadow. New York was the nation’s first capitol. George Washington was inaugurated on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in 1789. You can stand where he stood, and I have! If you’re a history buff, you can totally get your geek on just walking down the street in Manhattan—from the architecturally significant buildings to the ethnic neighborhoods that tell the story of the American immigrant to the literary pilgrimage spots. New York has history in spades.

P1040048

4. The Empire State Building. One of those architecturally significant buildings was completed in 1931, and for 40 years the art deco building was the world’s tallest at 102 stories (1250 feet, not including the spire antenna). With observation decks on both the 86th and 102nd floors, you can see all of New York City laid out below you, and on a really clear day, you can see almost 80 miles in every direction—giving you a glimpse of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania as well. History, architecture, and a really great view. What more could you ask?

P1040082

5. The Staten Island Ferry. It’s free! In a city where it costs $8.50 to get a small soda (okay, slight exaggeration), free is a miracle. Save your money and skip a harbor cruise; be a real New Yorker and try the ferry. The Staten Island Ferry makes over 100 trips a day during the work week (and around 70 a day on the weekends). The five mile, 25-minute (each way) trip offers a respite from the jostling crowds and some of the best views in New York: the famed New York Skyline, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty.

P1040020

6. Ellis Island. A recent addition to my New York favorites, we took the kids a couple of years ago. We were on what I like to call the Great AP US History (APUSH) Tour of the East Coast. I could easily imagine the nervous immigrants treading the stairs in the Great Hall. Some of my ancestors came through the earlier immigration station, Castle Garden, but I guess the feelings and emotions were the same. Freedom. A chance for a better life. The welcome of Lady Liberty’s raised lamp (Ellis Island opened in 1892, and the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886.), which offer the promise of light and hope for the future, is still a powerful symbol today. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum is an excellent chance to recall where we came from and to reflect on where we want to go.

IMG_6598

7. The food. When I was a kid, I loved it when my parents would buy us pretzels from the food carts. I grew up in a street-vendorless college town, so buying food off the street was an exotic experience. Then there were the restaurants: My first glass of red wine was in an Italian restaurant in Little Italy, which was also as my introduction to the antipasto platter. There was prosciutto and unusual cheeses from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side, which was my grandfather’s favorite; the smell of coffee from Chock Full O Nuts, where my dad liked to grab a cup of coffee and a snack; there were deli’s with stacks of meat on fresh rye bread—like at the Second Avenue Deli (which is no longer on Second Avenue!) where we took the kids on the Great APUSH Tour—and there was the fabulous New York pizza. (Note to the so-called NY-style pizza place locally: you’re doing it wrong.) So much good food and so many great memories of sharing it with family and friends!

8. The rhythm of New York. People moved quicker. They talked quicker. They seemed to live quicker. The pace of the town I grew up in was sleepy, so it was eye-opening—and exhilarating—to adjust to the pace of New York. As it turns out, I’m more of a college-town girl, but I still enjoy the periodic foray into an urban playground.

9. The subway. The subway is an awesome tool for an aspiring writer. There are hundreds of people riding with you. Where are they going? What are their stories? Are they happy or sad? Tourist or native? Worker bee or boss? How do they talk, interact, live? The possibilities are endless, the stories infinite. Oh, and it’s also pretty dang fun to practice subway surfing. Look, Ma! No hands!

10. Everything else. It’s impossible to list only ten great things about New York—the resilient people, the fabulous Central Park, the skating at Rockefeller Center, the Christmas decorations, the movie locations, the collective knowledge of the universities, the parades, .… I’m so glad to have some small ties to this iconic city. Rock on New York. I’m delighted you’re there.

P1040135

Text ©Rebecca Bigelow
Photos ©Rebecca Bigelow and Ian Brooks

Additional Reading:

Road Pictures: Tinley Park and Naperville, Illinois

Being a good mom, I recently drove the twins and one of their friends to Tinley Park. They were headed to the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre for the Warped Tour—an all day punk rock festival. To me the idea of spending 10 hours listening to punk bands brought this to mind:

Portrait

And made me want to do this:

Cover ears

But the kids were excited to go, and luckily they are old enough to just drop off. This was excellent news for my eardrums, but I needed something in the vicinity to do for 10 hours. Fortunately, a friend of mine, Terri, was available to keep me company, and we were able to make our own fun that didn’t involve this (which I am pretty sure is expressly forbidden in my insurance policy):

Warped mosh

Once we turned the kids loose, our first stop was just a few miles away from the Amphitheatre at the Tinley Park Farmers’ Market (TPFM). We live in downstate Illinois, where there is much more farmland. (Helpful hint: when driving through central Illinois, if the crop is tall, it’s corn; if it is short, it’s soy beans.) Farmers’ market is probably a misnomer in Tinley Park. The TPFM is probably a quarter of the size of our local one, and the most obvious difference is that there were only two or three booths (as opposed to two or three rows of booths) selling actually local produce. Intriguingly, however, one of the TPFM produce stands was selling bananas. The booth was doing brisk business, and I didn’t want to interrupt to ask how they managed to grow bananas locally, so sadly this remains an unsolved mystery.

Despite the decided lack of farmers, the TPFM did have several booths selling food items. The best sign goes to the cheese booth: Caseum Diem (Cheese the Day). I would have bought cheese there just because the sign was clever, but it would have spoiled in the hot car before we returned home. I resisted flavored olive oil, dubious foodstuff on a stick, and assorted jams and jellies. I did end up buying a caramel apple coffee cake ($10). The booth was serving samples, which were delicious. Veni. Gustaverim. Emi. (I came. I tasted. I bought!) Other booths were filled with things we could live without (e.g., fleece blankets, which were probably not the best thing to sell in 90 degree heat, or necklaces of teen pop stars made out of bottle caps) and some beautifully made items that were more than I wanted to spend that day (e.g., painted gourd planters or a lovely oak pie cupboard with punched tin panels). But it was fun to look, and we spent an hour poking around. There was even some entertainment in the form of a violinist (who seemed to be raking in the money) and half of the winning team from the most recent Virginia Beach Sand Castle Championships. He was making palm trees from a sand block for a Caribbean-themed street party that was to be held the next day.

174

After we had exhausted the TPFM options, we walked a few blocks of Oak Park Avenue because they had benches decorated in children’s book themes: fairy tales and classics like Where the Wild Things Are. They were very cute. (Apparently the bench theme changes each year.)

177

You’re freaking me out, Grandma.

179

This is why moms say “No sweets before dinner!”

180

I thought the cow was supposed to be milky white.

181

Let the wild rumpus start!

182

Notice the shot put-sized pea.

After admiring the benches, we departed Tinley Park for Naperville. Parking in both towns turned out to be free, and in Naperville, it was plentiful. We found a spot in the second lot we tried. The first order of business was lunch and we chose a bar and grill that seemed to be doing booming trade: Jimmy’s Grill. Terri had fish tacos and I had a burger and fries. We both thought the food was tasty. They charged extra for cheese and mushrooms (making my $9 burger a $10 burger), but soft drinks were a reasonable $2. Terri’s fish tacos were $11 or $12. Having an OCD-fueled germ phobia, I thought the place could have been a tad cleaner (table and seats were not wiped well; there was no changing table in the restroom, so another patron was changing her son’s diaper on the sink), but overall, it was a decent meal at a reasonable price.

Driving into Naperville, we had noticed a little river walk. After lunch, we strolled over to the park entrance. That part of the walk went through woods, so it was shady (welcome on a hot day) and followed a winding brick path along the river. It was lovely. The Morton Arboretum had placed information plaques by some of the trees, and there were benches dotted along the way. On the opposite shore you could see the stadium of North Central College. We also spotted a chipmunk, several ducks and their babies . . .

184

191

.  . . and this guy, who was just hanging out on a downed tree.

188

We walked the whole length of that part of the river walk (about 1.2 miles roundtrip) and then headed into town to explore the various shops. We sniffed all the spice sample jars in a spice shop, and Terri ended up buying some Chili 9000 (staff assured us that was not the temperature of your tongue after ingesting said Chili 9000.), which blended chili, cocoa, cinnamon, and other spices. We next tried samples in a gourmet popcorn store, and we each bought a small bag for $5—hers was plain salted, mine was kettle corn. Of course the small bag there was the size of a large bag at the movie theatre. Then we crossed the street and browsed a Barnes and Noble bookstore. After that, we stopped at Potbelly’s to get a soft drink and sit for a bit (less than $2 per drink) before purusing a few more shops along that main street, including some resale stores (one describing itself as upscale sold old designer shoes for outrageous prices—a pair of Manolo Blahnik’s shoes, for example, that were dirty and well-worn were still being sold for $100! Me: Why?), a board game store, and more.

Then we walked a different part of the river walk, heading the opposite way. This part had a concrete path along the river and a wider brick path up at street level. There was less shade here, but it was still fun to people watch, admire assorted art and fountains (including the aptly named Dandelion Fountain) and crisscross the river on the various bridges (covered bridges for pedestrians only or regular street bridges. Naperville’s vibrant downtown had more shops and restaurants than we could explore, the river walk was an unexpected delight, and there is even a historic area that we didn’t investigate because it was closed for an Ale Fest the day we were there.

193

194

As the day turned to evening, we headed back to Tinley Park,** topping up the gas tank in Naperville because it was about 16 cents a gallon cheaper than Tinley Park (although both cities had considerably higher gas prices—over $4 a gallon—than central Illinois). We had a quick dinner at an Arby’s in Tinley Park and arrived at the amphitheatre before the last set. We walked around a bit outside the venue. There was music in the parking lot, which was competing with the noise music inside. Inside there were several stages and the sound bled between them. Fingernails on the chalkboard to me, but the kids came out happy and hungry (a vegan, a vegetarian, and a frugal teen did not do well with the venue fare), so we took them over to Subway to get reasonably priced food before driving home.

The adventures were successful all the way around; although I still think Terri and I had the better day. We’re already planning a return trip to Naperville with another friend in the fall. There are tons more shops to check out, and the river walk should be lovely when the leaves turn.

Photo 1: National Archives (public domain)
Photo 2: Noisy Whistler; Nathan Jones, Flikr
Photo 3: Warped 2010; Ted Van Pelt, Flikr
Text and all other photos ©: Rebecca Bigelow

**We drove to Naperville with the GPS set to “Avoid Toll Roads.” We drove back on the toll roads. The former route was picturesque, but took longer. The latter was shorter, but cost us about $7! Highway robbery and/or reason to buy an I-pass?

Tinley Park by the numbers:

Incorporated: 1892

Population: 56,703

Capacity of the Amphitheatre: 28,000

Weird Claim to Fame: Tinley Park Lights UFO sightings in 2004, 2005, and 2006

Naperville by the numbers:

Settled: 1831; incorporated as a city: 1890

Population: 141,857

Naperville’s Smartest Decision: Keeping parking free—a choice made in the 1970s so the downtown area could compete with shopping malls that were opening in the surrounding area. It clearly worked.

Any Way You Slice It

sliced-

I made my last school lunch this year. (The twins graduated high school in May.) By my reckoning, if I made sandwiches for their lunches every school day (180 days a year)* from K–12, times two kids, times two slices of bread, it would be roughly 1,300 loaves of bread**or more than 9,000 slices. That is a lot of bread (both literally and figuratively), not to mention a lot of work for the Sandwich Maker- in-Chief.

Fortunately, my task was made more efficient by Otto Rohwedder. Never heard of him? Well, you can toast his invention (also literally and figuratively!) and celebrate sliced bread. Bread, of course, has been ubiquitous at meal times for millennia, and the fourth Earl of Sandwich had the bread-and-filling lunchtime meal named after him by 1762, but the world would have to wait until the twentieth century for the convenience of pre-sliced bread.

Cutting Edge

Rohwedder, a jeweler by trade, first developed the idea in 1912 and had a prototype by 1916. The invention was not without setbacks, however. A fire destroyed his model and the blueprints for the slicer, along with the factory that was going to produce the machines, in 1917. Unwilling to leave his idea half-baked, Rohwedder started from scratch. It would be ten years before he had enough dough to try again, but by November 1928, he had a patent (1867377) for the new slicer.

The next problem was persuading bakers to try out his invention. They believed that sliced bread would dry out faster than the whole loaf and that people wouldn’t want to buy pre-sliced loaves. Undeterred, Rohwedder figured out a way to wrap the bread to prevent rapid drying (and to keep the sliced loaf together), and he finally convinced a baker friend, M. Frank Bench, owner of the Chillicothe Baking Company in Chillicothe, Missouri, to try the machine. The first loaf of sliced Kleen Maid Bread hit the shelf on July 7, 1928—only 85 years ago this week!

It’s a Wrap

To Bench’s surprise, the pre-sliced bread was a hit. The Chillicothe Baking Company quickly saw their bread sales jump 2,000 percent. Rohwedder soon sold more of the machines, including one to a baker in the St. Louis area, Gustav Papendick, who made a few improvements of his own to the wrapping process; Papendick also receiving patents for his contributions. (Early attempts to keep the sliced bread together included pins or rubber bands!) Finally, the Continental Baking Company (which would eventually become Hostess Brands) took sliced bread national when they introduced pre-sliced Wonder Bread in 1930.

Pre-sliced bread became so popular that in 1943 housewives even took umbrage when the government deemed the automated slicing process to be detrimental to the war effort and briefly banned the slicing (for the general public, although the military still used sliced bread to feed the soldiers) during World War II.  Fortunately for sandwich makers everywhere, the ban only lasted about three months. With sliced bread sales rising, the sales of spreads, including jams, jellies, and peanut butter, also skyrocketed, and the pop-up electric toaster for home use (also patented in the 1920s) was suddenly popular because the uniform bread slices made the toaster less frustrating to use.

Pre-sliced bread, first marketed as “The Greatest Forward Step in the Baking Industry Since Bread was Wrapped,” soon became the gold standard by which all other inventions were judged. With thousands of inventions in the last 85 years, different people may argue that the computer or the compact disc or the Chia Pet is the best thing since sliced bread, but sliced bread will be remembered as THE invention to beat. Chew on that the next time you reach for a slice.

*Full disclosure: They only took sandwiches half the time, and prior to the picky middle school years, they often ate cafeteria food, but we are imagining here.

**Loaves of the only brand of bread sandwich bread my kids like—minus the heels, which they don’t—make seven, two-slice sandwiches.

Text: Rebecca Bigelow; advert: public domain

Additional Reading:

On a Personal Note: Thank you for your patience with Curiosity Seldom Pays. This spring has been quite eventful with family mishaps and happenings, but life is returning to normal. Thus, I hope to return to a more regular blogging schedule.

The Ballot Box

800px-US_$20_1905_Gold_Certificate

Monday was President’s Day. In 1968, Congress passed a law that created uniform Monday holidays (to create three-day weekends) and moved the holiday for Washington’s Birthday to the third Monday in February. The law went into effect in 1971, but Washington’s Birthday gradually morphed into a day to celebrate all the presidents. Washington’s loss is the perfect excuse for a quiz on some modern US president. (What? Monday was a holiday. You had an extra day to study!) For each question, vote for Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, or Harry Truman. Highlight the text below each question to see the answers.

1. Which President ordered the Berlin Airlift?

Other leaders suggested sending supplies to cutoff West Berlin in trucks protected by tanks, but Truman feared this could start a new war. He ordered the airlift instead. To bring in the more than 2 million tons of food and coal to West Berliners, American and British planes at the height of the airlift were landing every three minutes. The success of the airlift made the Russian blockage ineffective and let the West win the propaganda battle in this cold war skirmish.

2. Which president ordered the use of the atomic bomb against Japan?

At the Potsdam Conference, Truman hinted to Josef Stalin that the USA was developing a powerful new weapon. Stalin pretended to be uniformed, but he actually knew about the atomic bomb before Truman did! Stalin had spies in the US nuclear program; Truman, on the other hand, learned about the bomb only after his inauguration as president. His decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains one of the most controversial decisions ever made by a president.

3. Which president is the only one to hold a PhD?

Did you guess Truman again? Wilson actually earned his PhD from Johns Hopkins. His first job was as a professor of history and politics at Bryn Mawr–a women’s college established by Quakers in Pennsylvania. Wilson didn’t particularly care for teaching women, however, writing to a friend, “My teaching here this year lies altogether in the field of political economy, and in my own special field of public law: and I already feel that teaching such topics to women threatens to relax not a little my mental muscle.”

4. Which president once owned a haberdashery?

Truman’s partner in the business was a war buddy named Edward Jacobson. The business failed, but the friendship remained. Jacobson, who was Jewish, would play an important role in 1948 when Israel came into existence, helping convince Truman to recognize the new country. Despite opposition from his advisers, Truman announced that the United States would recognize Israel a mere eleven minutes after the Israelis announced the new country.

5. Which president changed his mind about women’s suffrage during his two terms in office?

Wilson modified his stance on women’s voting rights. At first, Wilson was embarrassed by the suffragettes and did not support their cause. (See his comments on the education of women earlier in this quiz.) After the United States entered World War I, however, he asked Congress: “We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil, and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Despite this, women would have to wait until after the war for the Nineteenth Amendment to pass.

 6. Which president was an avid conservationist?

As president, Teddy Roosevelt doubled the number of National Parks and created over fifty Federal Bird Reserves. He also introduced the Antiquities Act of June 8, 1906. This granted him the executive power to create national monuments at historically or scientifically interesting sites. This allowed Roosevelt to preserve sites like Devils Tower in Wyoming, the Petrified Forest in Arizona, and a large area of the Grand Canyon.

7. Which president created projects that benefited National Parks like Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee?

If you guessed Teddy Roosevelt again, you guessed wrong. His cousin Franklin Roosevelt created an alphabet soup of programs and policies, known as the New Deal, that were designed to shore up banks, help with unemployment, and stimulate the economy. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was part of the New Deal, was a popular program that created jobs through public works projects. Roads, fire towers, and tree plantings were just a few of the projects the men of the CCC completed in National Parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

How did you do? Are you a presidential scholar or do you need to revisit history class?

Text: Rebecca Bigelow; picture is in public domain.

Additional Reading:

Penicillin—A Love Story

Untitled

This week’s entry is a little late, but I have a good excuse. In researching this week’s topic, I stumbled upon a medical mystery. Here’s the story …

February 14 is Valentine’s Day—a day for chocolate, roses, and romance. But my Valentine was winging his way to Vienna for work. (I know. But someone has to do it!) So for me, there was no chocolate. No roses. No romance. (Full disclosure: we did share a heart-shaped pizza a couple of days before he left and exchanged eCards on the day.) Ordinarily a holiday would be a great blog post, but I didn’t feel much like writing about the history of the day meant for kisses and sweet nothings. Although I could have played up the really gory aspects—beheaded priests and all that (True story. But maybe next year.)—I decided to see what else happened on February 14 (besides the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which has been done to death [Rimshot!]).

And there it was on the History Channel’s This Day in History website: February 14, 1929—Penicillin Discovered. Awesome. I can’t take it—I’m allergic—but I can write about it. So, as any good historian would do, I began to investigate the facts of this premise: penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming (1881–1955) on Valentine’s Day in 1929. The trouble began with the sources. I could find dozens, hundreds and thousands even, that made similar claims to the History Channel, but I couldn’t find any primary source material to back it up.

Discovery

Digging deeper, I determined Fleming had actually made the discovery in September 1928. He was studying bacteria at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, England, and he noticed odd patterns in one of his cultures that had been contaminated by spores of Penicillium (likely from another lab in the building).  The Penicillium mold prevented the Staphylococcus bacteria from growing in an area around the spores. Further experiments by Fleming followed, and he learned that the mold was harmless to animals and prevented Staphylococcus growth even when diluted. He also noted that the penicillin (Fleming’s name for the active substance) was not very stable because it quickly lost strength.

Obviously then, Fleming did not discover penicillin on Valentine’s Day. I returned to the sources. Some said he actually “announced” the discovery on February 14.  Possible. I started a new line of research. Perhaps his first paper on the subject was published on February 14, 1929. Again, I was stymied. Fleming’s work first appeared in The British Journal of Experimental Pathology, which helpfully noted the article had been “received for publication May 10, 1929”—definitely not Valentine’s Day.

Endeavor

More research followed—for me and for penicillin. I read about the other investigators who helped to develop penicillin, including Oxford University researchers, Howard Florey (1898–1968) and Ernst Chain (1906–1979). In a collaboration that began in the late 1930s, Florey and Chain (and others in their lab) purified penicillin and discovered therapeutic uses; however, production and scale were still issues, especially with the start of World War II (1939–1945) in Europe. These problems would be solved in partnership with a lab in Peoria, Illinois, and large scale production would go on to save many soldiers from infection during the war and many civilians in the years after.** Fleming, Florey, and Chain won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945 for their contributions.

Fleming, a modest man, remarked: “I did not invent penicillin. Nature did that. I only discovered it by accident.” But it would probably be more accurate to say he rediscovered it. It turns out that Fleming was not the first person to note the abilities of Penicillium! Others had witnessed molds’ healing ability, including a medical student, Ernest Duchesne (1874–1912), whose thesis, “Contribution to the study of vital competition in microorganisms: Antagonism between moulds and microbes,” also considered the therapeutic values of molds. The year? 1897. And there were others before Duchesne. Unfortunately for modern medicine, Duchesne died before he could continue his research, and Duchesne’s work went largely unnoticed at the time. It took Fleming and his contaminated sample to get the idea noticed.

Challenger

But not on February 14! I searched again, trying to find the “patient zero” for the History Channel article. Who had Fleming told on February 14? His wife? The milkman? The story must have started somewhere! I mentioned the problem to my husband (a scientist, but not a bacteriologist) via a Skype chat (because remember he is still in Vienna, poor thing!) and asked him where a British scientist might make such an announcement. He suggested the Royal Society.  And I was off pulling another thread in my attempt at unraveling the Valentine’s Day conundrum, even though my research had now run to dozens of hours over several days. “Why bother?” You ask. Because (A) I’m frustrated by unsolved mysteries, (B) misinformation irritates me, and (C) I’m stubborn. (Full disclosure: friends and family would probably say it is mostly C!)  So now it was a matter of principle!

Cleared for Launch

I checked the records of the Royal Society. Nada. I searched for medical conferences held in February 1929. Zilch. I planned an alternate blog post in case I failed. And frankly, I was beginning to think that was the one that would run. But then, I found it. No fanfare (although I confess, the trumpeters were playing jubilantly in my head!), no ticker-tape parade, just a single reference. Could it be? I checked and triple checked. I wasn’t going to publish this unless I was sure. I found other sources to confirm, and I am pleased to announce the following:

Alexander Fleming presented some of his work on penicillin at the Medical Research Club in London on February 13, 1929.

That’s right. The day before Valentine’s Day. Where the Valentine’s Day mythos began is anyone’s guess. Perhaps someone thought it would be funny if the antibiotic that cures some sexually transmitted diseases was discovered on Valentine’s Day and fudged the date. Perhaps the initial error was a typo. Perhaps, it was lazy research. Regardless, the premise that penicillin was discovered (or even announced) by Alexander Fleming on Valentine’s Day in 1929 is completely debunked. Sorry History Channel. I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Text: ©Rebecca Bigelow
Photo: Alexander Fleming in his lab.
Original via Wikimedia; edits Rebecca Bigelow.

**On a personal note, penicillin came to the market too late to save my uncle (on my father’s side) who died in 1931, at the age of six, from complications from strep throat. Penicillin probably would have saved him, but 1943 was the year mass production of penicillin began—coincidentally, the year my father turned six.

Additional Reading:

This Day in History

Fleming and Penicillin History

Some of the Sources for February 13, 1929