Day 562: Happy Centenarian, Lots Of Stuff

originally published July 15, 2013

Maybe it’s simply the distorted perspective of having a daughter who believes the original Teen Wolf film is ‘old’, the Woodstock concert is ‘ancient’ and Elvis Presley is ‘ancestor-esque’, but I think our culture is in danger of losing its sense of history. This is why we curators of trivia are necessary. Someone needs to remind the younger generation that phones and cameras used to be mutually exclusive, that paying for music and movies wasn’t always an optional thing, and that getting together with friends used to mean someone invariably had to leave their house.

So in the interest of trivia, I’m going to plant an easy landmark and turn the calendar back by a century, commemorating some of the creations that entered the world back in 1913.

This was the year L. Frank Baum introduced Betsy Bobbin to the Land of Oz, the year Fu Manchu first graced a novel with his chick-magnet facial hair, and the year Colorado began issuing license plates for vehicles. But I’m more interested in the inventions that changed little corners of our world, those which turn 100 this year.

Elias Howe, who by inventing the sewing machine had already ensured his seat was taped off and reserved at the Table Of Awesome, came up with an ‘automatic continuous clothing closure’ back in 1851. It was more of an elaborate draw-string than anything else, but it got other inventors thinking. People like Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-American engineer who found himself working at the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company in Meadville, Pennsylvania decades later.

His company owned the US rights for his invention, but Sundback had the international rights, and his name became known far and wide (at least among… I don’t know, zipper aficionados) as the inventor of the zipper. The actual ‘zipper’ name came from B.F. Goodrich (the tire guy), when he wanted them installed on rubber boots his company was making. Zippers remained popular on boots and tobacco pouches, but didn’t catch on in the world of fashion until around WWII, around the time the ‘Greatest Generation’ decided they were willing to put their manhoods in harm’s way in exchange for quick access at the urinal.

Long before they became a useful ingredient in home-made crack pipes (hey, I learn a lot writing these things!), the Brillo Pad was a soap-infused chunk of steel wool, designed to pry the stickiest of sauces free from plates and cookware. It seems a cookware peddler and his jeweler brother-in-law (the names are apparently lost to the ages, or else the Brillo Corporation doesn’t want us to know them) melded steel wool, soap and jeweler’s rouge into a single product.

Jeweler’s rouge is a fine ferric oxide powder that puts a glimmering sheen on metallic jewelry, and it stripped the black off dirty pots and pans like magic. These two mysterious vendors lacked money for a lawyer, so a guy named Milton Loeb took a share of the business instead of payment, and filed a patent for their product back in 1913. Since his name actually makes the company’s website, I assume he steered the corporate ship, and either he or his descendants reaped the big rewards when Brillo was bought out by Purex in 1962, then Dial in 1985.

Back in 1913, R.J. Reynolds, the man who introduced millions of people to a product that could make them look really cool before it killed them, had a brilliant idea. Tobacco smokers were buying pouches of the stuff, then rolling their own smokes. Why not put together a pre-rolled product for those who could use it? People who worked outdoors, one-armed veterans, and those who were simply mechanically inept might forsake the cool, smooth refreshment of inhaling toxic chemicals because rolling their own was impractical.

The Camel cigarette, R.J.’s giant metaphorical supercranial-light-bulb, was so named because of the Turkish papers used in the original product. Legend has it, R.J. had undercut his competition so effectively, he sold 425 million packs of Camels in their first year on the market. Early promotional ideas included marching a circus camel through town and handing out free cigarettes. There simply aren’t enough ad campaigns involving live circus creatures in the streets anymore. Well done, R.J.

During a quiet moment in his presidency when clearly nothing else was important enough to call for his attention, Teddy Roosevelt decided that American coins needed a facelift. A number of ideas came and went, but eventually a sculptor named James Earle Fraser came up with the final design for the Buffalo Nickel, also known as the Indian-Head Nickel.

Fraser, who pocketed a cool $2500 for his contribution, had to work extensively with a guy named Clarence Hobbs, who had built an anti-counterfeit device that could identify phony coins dropped into vending machines. It took over six months of design before they finally agreed on the finished product. The Native American on the heads side was a composite of several people. Still, a number of Natives claimed to be the coin’s model, despite the fact that few people really cared, and there was no royalty money forthcoming. The real issue was the name – it was a bison on the back, not a buffalo. Also, the ‘nickel’ was composed of 75% copper and 25% nickel. Numismatists (coin nuts) were displeased. My guess is they were secretly happy to finally have some controversy worth talking about.

Arthur Wynne, an English journalist from Liverpool, created the first ‘word-cross’ puzzle in New York World on December 21, 1913. While there had been word puzzles in print as far back as 1873, this was considered the first crossword puzzle. The Boston Globe began publishing them in 1917, and by the 20’s, the puzzles had become a fad. And like any fad, some folks really hated it.

In 1924, the year when the puzzles had escalated to mania status, the New York Times called them a “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern.” “This is not a game at all,” the paper wrote, “and it can hardly be called a sport.” A clergyman called them “the mark of a childish mentality.” In 1925, the New York Times declared the fad to be over, destined to be soon forgotten. They wrote basically the same thing in 1929. And in 1930.

In 1942, the New York Times published their first crossword puzzle. They have gone on to become the most popular publisher of the puzzles in the country. Some fads will just stick, I guess. Even for a hundred years.

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