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. The trivia roundup just went outside for a smoke and did a couple of deep knee bends, and is ready to face the world again. Abandon hope, all ye who enter.
1. Battles for supremacy, scurrilous lobbying efforts, nefarious politicking, corporate espionage, and outright propaganda campaigns between corporate behemoths are a unending font of information. Steel, oil, telecommuncations, sure…but let me tell you a little story about the spreadable fat industry.
In the mid-19th century, emperor of France Napoleon III (Bonaparte’s nephew) offered a reward for the development of a butter substitute for the military and lower classes. In 1869, the amazingly-named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès collected that reward for his invention of margarine. Its initial formulation combined beef tallow with skim milk, though by the early 1900s it was typically made with vegetable oils and beef fat, and the beef fat would eventually disappear altogether (spurred in part by the depression and wartime rationing). Nowadays, americans eat 8 pounds of margarine and five pounds of butter in an average year. In 1930, it was 2 pounds of margarine and 18 pounds of butter.
BIG BUTTER’s efforts to destroy the burgeoning margarine zeitgeist have been expansive. By the 1880s, they’d managed to convince politicians to tax margarine and require hefty licensing fees by manufacturers. Several states subsequently went rogue, mandating that margarine be colored pink (thus, presumably, putting off consumers) or restaurants that used it place an “Artificial Butter Used Here” sign out front (remember what I said last time about public shaming?). Though an 1898 Supreme Court decision eventually halted those practices, one law that stuck made the addition of coloring agents to margarine illegal—on the assumption that plain white margarine would be unappealing in comparison to the tasty adiposal-yellow sheen of butter (some margarine manufacturers got around this by including dye tablets with each margarine purchase). Thanks to its lower cost during depression and wartime, margarine eventually began to win back its market share.
Across the border, margarine was completely illegal in Canada until 1948, when their version of the supreme court made the landmark Margarine Reference (though bootleg margarine had been smuggled into Canada for years, and sold at sub-butter prices). 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. Now we live under the tyranny of BIG I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S NOT BUTTER.
2. Ignaz Semmelweis is a tragic cautionary tale. For conspiracy theorists (crazed or plausible) who believe their ideas are rejected only because they would upset the scientific establishment (or the THEY that so concerns Kevin Trudeau), he’s a point in their favor. In the mid 1800s, post-partum mortality (of children and mothers) was particularly high due to childbed fever. Contemporaneous theories of disease revolved around either an imbalance in the four bodily humors or the miasma theory, in which disease resulted from “bad air” (miasma) emanating from the dead, dying, sick, poor, or otherwise wretched. Germ theory was several decades in the future. Semmelweis noticed that home births were much less likely to contract the disease than hospital births, and, through observation and detailed statistical analysis, concluded that the disease was being transmitted by doctors—and, more specifically, by doctors who went from autopsy-to-patient without washing their hands. Oh, did I not mention that? No one washed their hands. Though he implemented disinfecting hand-washing procedures at his Vienna hospital
and watched mortality rates plummet, his beliefs were roundly rejected by the scientific community who a) couldn’t be bothered to waste time washing their hands and 2) did not believe they were “dirty” (actual quote: “doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean.” Fucking babykiller) and d) perversely, did not believe his reasoning, regardless of the evidence (despite that he had, you know, FUCKING UNDENIABLE MATHEMATICAL PROOF; admittedly, his belief that the disease was transmitted by “cadaver stench” clinging to unwashed hands was wrong, but that’s hardly the point).
Unfortunately for Semmelweis, the continued degradation and ridicule he suffered at the hands of the establishment, and possibly a concomitant cognitive decline from Alzheimer’s, neurosyphilis, or PTSD, led to him being committed. Once at the asylum, he was beaten and doused with cold water shortly after his arrival, and died mere weeks later. His legacy—besides the thousands/millions of lives he has saved—comes in the form of what’s called the Semmelweis reflex, in which novel theories are reflexively derided by the established scientific hierarchy. He may also have played a vital role in the late 19th-century shift towards scientific, evidence-based medicine, not that he was alive to see it.
3. Vaseline was invented in the late 1860’s by the awesomely-named Sir Robert Augustus Chesebrough. If you’re wondering, yes, he was actually knighted for his pioneering contributions to lubrication. Chesebrough was a chemist who worked with whale oil, and, upon getting out of that game, visited the nation’s first crude oil field in Titusville, PA in 1859. Workers there frequently had to remove a buildup they called “rod wax” from the derricks, and some had taken to applying the wax to cuts and scrapes. Chesebrough grabbed as much as he could carry and retired to his laboratory, eventually isolating petroleum jelly, patenting it in 1870, and beginning to market it as Vaseline (literally meaning “water oil”). It took a while to catch on, during which time he sold his product by gathering a crowd, cutting or burning himself, then slathering Vaseline on the wounds. He also claimed to eat a spoonful every day and lived to be 96, so…
In 1955, the Chesebrough company resorbed the Pond’s company, makers of fine creams, which had been started in the mid-1850s by the also awesomely-named 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 hey, speaking of people eating things they probably shouldn’t, Pond’s marketing department in the 1930s sent out samples with silver spoons (to keep their lily-white cream from being dirtied by the soot-stained hands of their low-class customers). They received back many complaints about the taste. Call it a lesson learned. Chesebrough-Pond’s was subsequently bought by Unilever.
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.
5. A non-comprehensive list of the signs of opulence of 1980s Miami found in the Miami Vice credits: Flamingos, Jai Alai, Le Mans racing, a 1937 Stuts Bearcat (?), Dolphins, Cigarette Boats, Fruit Hats, Jan Hammer[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTPu4hjfHKg?feature=player_detailpage&w=400&h=244]
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.