A partially fossilized, nearly-one-foot-diameter egg from the extinct elephant bird just fetched more than $100,000 at auction. In other news, the George W. Bush presidential library now exists. Abandon hope, all ye who roundup.
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1. Public battles, surreptitious lobbying efforts, nefarious politicking, corporate espionage, outright propaganda campaigns: the machinations of huge corporations are a scoundrel’s delight. Steel, oil, telecommunications, of course…but let me tell you a story about the spreadable fat industry.
In the mid-19th century, France’s emperor Napoleon III offered a reward for the development of a butter substitute, aimed at the military and poverty-stricken. French food scientists set to work, and in 1869, the amazingly-named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès collected the reward. He’d invented margarine. Initially made from a combination of beef tallow and skim milk, it was later made with vegetable oils and beef fat; eventually by the early 1900s—and the onset of the depression and wartime rationing—the beef disappeared altogether. In 1930, the average American ate 2 pounds of margarine and 18 pounds of butter a year. By the mid-2000s, it was 8 pounds margarine and 5 pounds of butter.
BIG BUTTER’s efforts to destroy a burgeoning margarine consensus have been expansive. Even by the 1880s, lobbying efforts had resulted in high taxes on margarine and hefty licensing fees for manufacturers. Several states took this further, mandating that margarine be colored pink (to put off consumers), or that restaurants using it place an “Artificial Butter Used Here” sign out front (recall the public shaming from last week). An 1898 Supreme Court decision halted most of these practices. One law that did manage to stick was a ban on adding coloring agents to margarine—on the assumption that plain white margarine would be unappealing in comparison to the adiposal goldenrod sheen of butter. To skirt the law, some margarine makers took to including dye tablets with their product, letting the consumer mix it together. Many statutes outlawing margarines of color were not repealed until the 1950s or later: Quebec did not repeal the law until 2008, and Missouri still has a law on the books, though it has not been enforced in over half a century. But thanks in part to its lower cost during depression and wartime, and probably also the mania for low-fat and low-cholesterol diets, margarine began to gain market share.
By the way: the situation was even more byzantine across the border. Margarine was completely illegal in Canada until 1948, when their high court made the landmark Margarine Reference, legalizing it. And now we live under the tyranny of BIG I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S NOT BUTTER.
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2. Ignaz Semmelweis is a great name and a tragic tale. In the mid-1800s, post-partum mortality was common, due to childbed fever. The problem was that no one knew what caused it. Contemporary theories of medicine held that disease was caused by an imbalance of bodily humors, or from the bad air (“miasma”) emanating from the dead, dying, sick, poor, or otherwise wretched. The concept of germs did not exist.
Semmelweis noticed that home births were less likely to contract the disease than hospital births. He began tracking outcomes and concluded that disease was being transmitted by doctors. Specifically, by doctors who went from autopsy to patient without washing their hands. Did I not mention that? No one washed their hands.
After implementing disinfecting hand-washing procedures at his Vienna hospital
mortality rates plummeted. And yet his beliefs were roundly rejected and ridiculed by a scientific community that (a) couldn’t be bothered to waste time washing their hands, (2) did not believe they could cause disease (“doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean”) and (d) perversely, did not accept his reasoning, regardless of what passed for undeniable mathematical proof. Sure, Semmelweis wrongly believed that childbed fever was transmitted by “cadaver stench” clinging to unwashed hands, but he had the right idea.
The continued degradation and ridicule, and possibly a concomitant cognitive decline from Alzheimer’s, neurosyphilis, or PTSD led to Semmelweis being committed to a mental institution. While there, he was beaten and doused with cold water, and died mere weeks later. His legacy, besides the thousands/millions of lives he saved and being a lodestar for people who believe in things “THEY” don’t want you to know about, is the Semmelweis reflex, in which novel theories are reflexively derided by established scientific hierarchy. Semmelweis almost certainly was crucial in the later 19th-century shift towards scientific, evidence-based medicine—not that he was alive to see it.
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3. Vaseline was invented in the late 1860’s by the awesomely-named Sir Robert Augustus Chesebrough. Yes, he was knighted for pioneering contributions to lubrication. A chemist, Chesebrough visited America’s first crude oil field in Titusville, PA, in 1859. Workers there complained about having to remove a buildup they called “rod wax” from the derricks; some had even taken to rubbing the rod wax on cuts and scrapes. Chesebrough grabbed as much of the stuff as he could carry and retired to his library, working to isolate what’s now called petroleum jelly. He patented it in 1870 and marketed it as Vaseline (literally “water oil”); he marketed it by staging a demonstration where he’d cut or burn himself then put Vaseline on the wounds. He also ate a spoonful of the stuff every day and lived to be 96 years old.
In 1955, the Chesebrough company absorbed Pond’s, which had been started in the mid-1850s by Theron Ponds, who peddled a witch-hazel based cure-all cream. Things Pond’s Extract claimed to cure in just one ad: sore throat, lameness, influenza, wounds, piles, earaches, chilblains (?), sore eyes, inflammations, hoarseness, frost bite, soreness, catarrh, burns, bruises, sore feet, face ache, hemorrhages. And speaking of people eating things they probably shouldn’t, Pond’s marketing department in the 1930s sent out samples with silver spoons—so the lily white cream would not be besmirched by grubby hands. They received back complaints about the taste. Chesebrough-Pond’s was subsequently bought by Unilever.
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4. April 25 marks the 167th anniversary of the “Thornton Affair” (aka Thornton Skirmish, Thornton’s Defeat, and Rancho Carricitos). A small US force of 70 soldiers, investigating whether Mexican forces had crossed the Rio Grande in preparation for an attack on Fort Texas—Texas at the time was a disputed territory—stumbled onto an encampment of more than 2000 soldiers and were soundly defeated. This act led President James K. Polk to formally initiate the Mexican-American war, in which future president Zachary Taylor would make his bones. Another famous battle of the Mexican-American war was the “Battle of Cerro Gordo,” in which an entrenched and fortified Mexican position was outflanked because a greenhorn engineer named Robert E. Lee (yes, that guy) found a secret mountain passage around them. The battle later became known as the “Thermopylae of the West” because the use of terrain to outflank the opponent mirrored the Persians’ eventual defeat of the 300 Spartans in the gates of fire.
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5. A non-comprehensive list of class markers of 1980s Miami in the Miami Vice credits: Flamingos, Jai Alai, Le Mans racing, a 1937 Stuts Bearcat (?), Dolphins, Cigarette Boats, Fruit Hats, Jan Hammer
Curiously absent: sockless loafers and Glenn Frey:
A similarly non-comprehensive list of great Miami Vice episode titles:
• Trust Fund Pirates • Tale of the Goat • The Dutch Oven • Viking Bikers from Hell • By Hooker By Crook • The Cows of October
Cows of October plot description: “The Vice Squad becomes involved in a bidding war between an American beef company and a Latin-American drug cartel over a supply of rare, high-quality cattle sperm.” I have no idea what a drug cartel or the Miami vice squad plans to use the cattle sperm for, but I’m sure it was totally above-board.