An Uncommon History of Common Things

index (19)by Janet Ulrey, Adult Services Librarian

Living in the information age has made most of us want to know more.    “An Uncommon History of Common Things” by Bethanne Patrick and John Thompson is packed with tons of little known facts concerning all areas of life.  With the World Wide Web, we have information available to us with just a click.  But, I still enjoy sitting down with a book to find tidbits of information to stir up my curiosity, and this book does just that.  For instance, you may be interested in knowing that one of the first uses for Velcro was by NASA, as a nose-scratcher inside helmets.   Discovering that our everyday Saran wrap came about when a scientist was trying to develop a hard plastic car cover is another interesting story.  As the title suggests, some of the most common things in our lives have the most unusual stories.
What is more common in our lives than food?  We consume it every single day.   Corn Flakes, for instance, did not start out to be the first dried cereal; it was discovered by mistake when William Kellogg was trying to make bread dough.   Then there is the story of how Swanson and Sons came up with the TV dinner in 1953, all because they overestimated the amount of turkey they would sell for Thanksgiving that year.  And what was that “runcible spoon” in Edward Lear’s famous poem “The Owl and the Pussycat”?  Just maybe it was a spork, a utensil that was half spoon, half fork.   We may have the foot soldiers of Persia’s Darius the Great to thank for giving us pizza.  It is recorded that the foot soldiers baked dough on their shields and added available toppings while in the field.  It seems that man’s mistakes and measures of necessity have led to many great dietary treasures.
Customs and symbols have been and always will be a part of our lives.  Putting your hand in front of your mouth when you yawn is a polite gesture.  But the custom may have begun because it was once believed that one’s soul could slip out, or evil spirits could slip in, while you were yawning.  You can discover why storks were chosen as the bearers of babies or how bones can bring about one’s wish.   As a child, I remember competing with my cousins to find out who was the lucky one to wish upon the bone from the Thanksgiving turkey.  Yet, it was prior to 400 B.C. when the first wish was whispered over a bird’s clavicle.  Now that tattoos are such a popular form of body art, it is interesting to learn that they were discovered on the body of a man who had been frozen for more than 5,000 years.  It has been amazing to discover the history behind our reasons and ways of doing things.
With computer games and downloadable games so readily available, we are never in want of leisure fun.  Many of us remember spending hours playing board games with friends and family.  The first-known board games, found in the Babylonian tombs of Ur, dated from 3000 B.C.  These gaming boards are thought to be the forerunners of today’s backgammon.  It seems our game of checkers was first played in ancient Egypt around 1400 B.C.  A Hindustan game called chaturanga, played during the sixth century A.D. or earlier, is our counterpart to chess.  While these games may become obsolete with technological changes, the history behind them is fascinating.
I have found that the invention and production of common everyday objects really do have uncommon stories.  If you like history or enjoy trivia, you will find this book informational and entertaining.  It may even change the way you look at the world and the people who live here!

Posted in: For Adults, Mercury Column

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