suburban trivia roundup

I journeyed deep into the heart of darkness last week: suburban bar trivia. I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. Time for a suburban trivia roundup.

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1. The first commercial hydroelectric plant in the US—the Vulcan Street Plant—was opened by Thomas Edison in 1882, along the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin. 1882, Appleton, Edison: I knew none of these things. The design was simple. The generator was connected directly to the waterwheel, so that lights would brighten and dim in response to the river’s flow. Voltage regulators and meters did not yet exist, so customers were charged a flat fee. It lit three buildings: two paper mills and the residence of H.J. Rogers, pumping out 12.5 kilowatts (the hydro dam in SimCity 2000 put out 20000 kilowatts; I spent an embarrassing amount of time looking that up). Finally, the wiring was bare copper, and I’m sure this is unrelated, but one of the powered paper mills burned to the ground in 1891.

Quick Appleton side note: first US town with an electric streetcar system, first telephone in Wisconsin, birthplace of Willem Dafoe, Joe McCarthy, and Mrs. Garret from The Facts of Life (the character, not the actress).

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2. Memphis, Tennessee has a fascinating history. Most importantly for our purposes, it is the birthplace of  Piggly Wiggly, which opened in 1916. And here’s the thing: Piggly Wiggly was a cataclysmic shock to American groc-ing: it was the nation’s first self-serve grocery, the first to have cashiers, the first to have standardized product locations and layout, the first to have refrigerated produce, the first to have employee uniforms, the first to have shopping baskets, and the first to allow shoppers to select their own groceries, rather than provide employees with a list of desired items. (Quick side note for southern friends: Harris Teeter was the first store in North Carolina to offer that last option; it was—tragically—not founded by a man named Harris Teeter).

ziggy piggy

Wiggly’s success spawned imitators: Handy Andy, Helpy Selfy, Mick-or-Mack, Jitney Jungle, and Ziggy Piggy. Which, of course, raises the question: where did that name come from in the first place? When asked, Piggly Wiggly founder Clarence Saunders responded “So people would ask that very question.” Saunders had a real roller-coaster ride as a corporate titan. By 1923, he was rich and in the middle of building a mansion called Pink Palace. Then speculators bear-raided the company; Saunders responded by trying to corner his own market. The stock price soared, and Saunders lost his shirt and his company. The Pink Palace was sold, and is today a science museum in Memphis. Saunders, bereft, entered a period of depression:

which did not wane until it was replaced with WHITE HOT VENGEANCE. Determined to take back his fortune and good name, he opened a new grocery chain in 1928, called—and I am absolutely not making this up—the “Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Stores.” He also sponsored a football team, called—unsurprisingly, I guess—“The Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Tigers.” Against all odds, this nomenclatural madness succeeded at first, but the stores went under after the market crashed. Saunders went back to the well yet a third time, developing the Keedoozle, a sort of giant automated vending machine / grocery store that was ultimately unsuccessful. Man, that guy was really into grocery shopping and naming things.

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3. Back to Memphis, which suffered multiple yellow fever outbreaks in the 1870s. The last, in 1878, cut the city’s population by 75% from a combination of mortality and flight (it was not yet known that mosquitoes carried the disease, but people noticed that those living on high ground, away from the river, were less often sick—and so they fled). With no one left to pay (or collect) taxes, revenues collapsed. The city couldn’t pay back its bonds, and lost its charter. For fourteen years, until 1893, Memphis was not technically a city; it was governed as something called a “taxing district.”

Here are some other important Memphis facts: In the early 20th century, Memphis was the world’s largest lumber market. In the 1950s, it was the world’s largest MULE MARKET, a thing I did not realized people kept track of. The political machine was controlled by E.H. Crump, whose nickname was “Boss,” as mandated by the Taft-Hartley BOSS Act of 1937. Memphis is home to the largest annual barbecue pork contest. Finally, remember that song Walking in Memphis?

4. Summer Olympics factoids:

a) “Water motorsports” was an event at the 1908 London olympics. Imagine powerboat racing, only slower. The locale was plagued by bad weather and roiling seas. In each of three races, only two boats even made it to the starting line, and only one finished. In one race, one boat capsized during the first lap, the other completed only one of eight laps.

b) Tug of war was an Olympic event from 1900-1920, using four, six, and eight man teams. After the explosive dismemberment of multiple members of the Swedish and British teams during a spirited match in 1920, all olympic nations to sign a disarmament treaty and the event was cancelled.

c) Ice hockey was an event at the 1920 summer olympics. I don’t have a joke, it’s just a thing that happened.

d) At the 1956 games in Melbourne, political turmoil boiled over into physical confrontation during a water polo match between the Soviet Union and Hungary, which is now called the “Blood in the Water Match.” Due to a foot and mouth disease outbreak, the equestrian events were held in Stockholm.

e) The US currently holds the all-time medal lead with 2399, with the Soviet Union in second place at 1010. The Soviet Union, though, only competed in 9 Olympic games.

f) In 1988, Ben Johnson was stripped of his medal in the 100-meter dash after testing positive for steroids and some kind of fish tranquilizer.

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5. Dateline: Oxford, 10 February 1355, St. Scholastica Day. A couple of Oxford students argued with the owner of the Swindlestock Tavern over the quality of the drinks. Apparently unsatisfied with his explanation, and apparently unaware of the concept of caveat emptor while drinking at a place with swindle in the name, they attacked him. When the mayor called for the attackers to be arrested, he was pummeled by a marauding band of students.

Townspeople and outsiders poured into Oxford to retaliate, sparking a two-day riot that left more than 60 scholars and 30 townsfolk dead. Eventually a settlement was reached, in favor of the students—yes, the students, exactly how bad were those drinks? As punishment, the town’s mayor and councillors were forced to walk bareheaded through the streets of Oxford every year on the anniversary of the riot, to be pelted with whatever could be thrown at them. They were also required to pay the school one penny for each student killed. In an inspired bit of perseverance and/or commitment to justice, this tradition continued for 470 YEARS, until the mayor decided not to take part.

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6. Final, totally unrelated trivium: did you know Duncan Hines was an actual person? Betty Crocker, in contrast, is just some made-up bullshit.


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