The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 18, 2009

Book review: Trivia buffs will love to learn about ‘Uncommon History’


“An Uncommon History of Common Things”

By Bethanne Patrick and John Thompson

I’m a bit of a trivia nut, to understate things enormously, so I was happy to see “An Uncommon History of Common Things” by Bethanne Patrick and John Thompson, published by National Geographic. The book is divided into nine chapters, covering Food & Drink, Seasons & Holidays, Ceremony & Customs, Symbols & Markings, Hearth & Home, Garments & Accessories, Medications & Potions, Toys & Games, and Tools & Innovations.

In addition to the main entries, there are blue boxes with Uncommonly Known stories to further inform and entertain and tan boxes with Parallel History information to put things into context. The second Uncommonly Known box, in the Food & Drink section, states that the bread slicer was invented in Iowa in 1917, but the first commercial use was in Chillicothe, Mo.!

In the section on lunch boxes, I learned that the first lunch box made for children was the Aladdin brand with Hopalong Cassidy decoration in the late 1940’s. No big surprise there, but (being a boomer baby) I didn’t realize that “concerned parents” in Florida rang the death knell for the metal lunch box and ushered in the age of plastics in the lunch box world.

Ceremony & Customs has an interesting piece about naming conventions. I remember hearing long ago that in Jewish custom, babies are named after deceased relatives but not living ones. According to the book, however, that is Ashkenazic custom, while Sephardic custom is exactly opposite. In Navajo culture, “a name is so powerful it is never used in everyday conversation.” In India, it is usual to have a “family” name used at home and a different formal name for use in the outside world.

Symbols & Markings gives a history of the peace symbol that I found interesting. It was created by a Londoner named Gerald Holtom for a march against nuclear armaments. It is a combination of the semaphores for “n” (nuclear) and “d” (disarmament). It made its first appearance in public on April 4, 1958 and the first appearance in the U.S. was evidently a photo of the march in Life magazine on April 14th.

What about the superstition about walking under a ladder? Evidently, that one goes back to ancient Egypt. Wood was scarce in Egypt and a ladder was a good luck sign. Triangles represented the sacred trinity of the gods, so walking under a ladder leaning against something was breaking the sacred space and earning the gods’ anger. In Christian times, a leaning ladder brought to mind the ladder used to mount a cross for crucifixion, and so became a symbol of evil and death. Those going to be hanged were forced to walk under the ladder, while the executioner went around it.

In Garments & Accessories, I learned a lot about loafers. One, why they’re called that. I always assumed that it referred to be lazy, since there are no laces to tie. Wrong! It comes from a shoe worn by Norwegian farmer shoes worn in the loafing (meaning gathering) areas for cattle. The Norwegian origin also explains the name of the loafers sold by Bass. “Weejun” is a diminutive form of Norwegian. Ah HA! I always thought (again, wrong assumption on my part) that Weejun was some sort of American Indian reference, like wampum (wampum being covered in the book, too, by the way).

The ubiquitous hook-and-loop fastener was patented in 1955. Brand-named Velcro, the French inventor got the idea from burrs in his dog’s fur. Whyever is it called Velcro? I have wondered, and now I know. The name comes from the French words velours (velvet) and crochet (hook). Ah, the velvet hook! Perfect description of the material, I think.

While there is a lot of information familiar to me in this book, there is obviously a lot that wasn’t. It’s very attractively laid out, with lots of photos, and makes for some interesting browsing. Come check it out, or any of the other books on curiosities, trivia and the like that we have at the Joplin Public Library.

Linda Cannon is the circulation supervisor/collection development librarian at Joplin Public Library.