June 19, 2016


June 19 is the anniversary of the death of one of the great historical villains of Ireland—Charles Cunningham Boycott. Now memorialized in German (Boykott), Italian (boicottaggio), and French (boicot), among many others, Boycott has emerged as one of the most notorious figures of all time.

n. withdrawal from social or commercial interaction or cooperation with a group, nation, person, etc., intended as a protest or punishment
Oxford English Dictionary

Historical relations between England and Ireland have always been strained, and Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott certainly did nothing to help matters. His unwillingness to negotiate resulted in his name being eternally maligned in more than a half dozen languages around the world.

The Emerald Isle has had a rough go of it over the years. St. Patrick and the Christians overwhelmed the pagan tribes in the fifth century AD, the Vikings wreaked havoc for a century or so, and then the Normans and the English settled in for the long haul. As the Irish Catholic landowners slowly lost their property to Protestant British settlers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, times got pretty tough for your average Irish farmer.

Following the Act of Union (which was not nearly as sexy as it sounds) between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland in 1801, absentee British landlords were common across the Irish isle, with local farmers renting and working the land. One of these landowners was John Crichton, the third earl of Erne, who hired Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott to manage his estates at Lough Mask House in Connaught, County Mayo, Ireland.

Born in Norfolk in 1832, Boycott served in the military before becoming a land agent in 1872. He had unfortunate historical timing for beginning this unsavory career (an 1843 Royal Commission described land-agent “middlemen” as “the most oppressive species of tyrant that ever lent assistance to the destruction of a country”). Boycott’s new position came a short twenty years after the end of the Great Famine in Ireland (in which tenant farmers surviving solely on a diet of potatoes died by the hundreds of thousands) and just prior to the formation of the reformist Irish National Land League.

The Land League sought to protect farmers from exploitation, through the “Three Fs” of fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale. When his tenants requested more reasonable rents in 1880 after several bad harvests, Boycott unwisely suggested a graphic fourth “F” for them to go and act upon themselves and even tried to evict one of them. The Land League’s president, Charles Stewart Parnell, urged a local audience, “When a man takes a farm from which another had been evicted you must shun him on the roadside . . . , you must shun him in the streets . . . , you must shun him in the shop . . . by isolating him from the rest of his country as if he were the leper of old, you must show your detestation of the crime he has committed.”

Boycott’s workers left him, neighbors ignored him, his farm was vandalized, local stores would not serve him, and even the mailman would not deliver to him. Local officials organized a “Boycott Relief Expedition” under military protection to help save his harvest, but the land agent and his family were eventually forced to flee. Local newspapers began referring to successful ostracizing as “boycotting,” and a lamentable legacy was born.

Boycott endured seventeen years of etymological smearing before dying back at home in England in 1897.

June 03, 2016


Today is is the birthday of Henry Shrapnel (1761). 

n. shell fragments scattered by any exploding shell
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

War is hell. The historical trick seems to be figuring out the most unpleasant ways of unleashing that hell on your opponents. Our modern usage for the maiming detritus of an explosion actually originates with a very specific type of explosive developed by Henry Shrapnel for the British artillery corps at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Shrapnel was an inventive British lieutenant in the Royal Artillery who was bucking for a promotion. Without a doubt, the canister shot that the British had been using since the 1400s did a pretty good job of killing people at close range. Canister shot essentially relies on the shotgun principle, in which you blast a bunch of metal balls, nails, or shards out of a muzzle and spray your enemies with hellfire. An alternative technology is the cannon, which hurls a larger ball, loaded with powder, much farther but only kills those in the immediate vicinity of its landing. Shrapnel wondered if there might be some way to marry these two widow-makers. Enter the delayed-action fuse.

In the mid-1780s, Shrapnel figured out a way to pack a projectile with all sorts of unpleasantness and have it detonate above the heads of enemy troops. Eventually his namesakes became so effective that the bullets he filled his shells with became superfluous as the shell casings themselves proved deadly enough.

The British army administrators did not embrace Shrapnel immediately. While they liked killing people, particularly at a distance, they did not come around to accepting the volatile invention until 1803, at which point Shrapnel was quickly promoted to captain, then major, and then colonel-commandant. By 1814, Shrapnel had been awarded a lifetime stipend of £1,200 for his good deeds. The Duke of Wellington used Shrapnel’s shells successfully to kill scores of Napoleon’s soldiers during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Shrapnel would ultimately be promoted to major general.

After Waterloo, the world could not get enough of Shrapnel’s shells. Few refinements to it were made through the course of World War I and into World War II. Even the modern cannonades of Vietnam featured the canister-shot artillery that Shrapnel had pioneered. It was not until the advent of the modern high-explosive charges that soldiers enjoy today that Shrapnel’s shells faded into military history. But his name lives on in any small projectile fragments that shower a battlefield. And his invention will forever be remembered in the national anthem of the United States. Francis Scott Key describes not only shrapnel, but also the Congreve rockets (another notorious namesake) during the terrifying British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814):

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

Henry Shrapnel died in 1842, presumably of natural causes.

May 28, 2016


If there is one word that epitomizes the spirit of the Tawdry Knickers project and the entire notion of “unfortunate ways to be remembered” it is surely guillotine—namesake of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, born today in 1738. It is a historical tragedy that with such humanitarian intentions, he is doomed to association with so macabre a device. Pity this poor Frenchman today, and hold out hope that your own neck and legacy might remain intact.

n. an instrument used in France (esp. during the Revolution) for beheading, consisting of a heavy knife blade sliding between grooved posts; also, execution by this instrument
Oxford English Dictionary

Despite not supporting the death penalty, not advocating public executions, and not himself dying under the blade of his namesake, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin will forever be associated with the sanguinary symbol of the French Reign of Terror.

The historical parade of torture paraphernalia would seem to support novelist Joseph Conrad’s assertion that “Man is a cruel animal. His cruelty must be organized.” In eighteenth-century France, popular execution methods included the breaking wheel, burning at the stake, hanging, and beheading. The speed with which prisoners died usually depended on social status, with the well-to-do able to bribe executioners to sharpen their ax and the lower classes dying of strangulation at the end of a noose or suffering multiple whacks from a dull blade.

Following the start of the French Revolution in 1789, the newly formed National Assembly decided that Égalité! applied to death row as well—that is, that all classes of condemned prisoners should be treated the same and that the death penalty need not also be the pain penalty. A crack team of consultants convened to review available options, among them surgeon Antoine Louis and professor of anatomy Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (who was also part of the committee five years earlier to decide if Franz Anton Mesmer was a blooming crackpot—see mesmerize). They studied existing beheading devices (including the mannaia of Italy, the Halifax Gibbet of England, and Morton’s Maiden of Scotland) and finally designed a suitably French version, complete with an elegantly angled blade.

The prototype head-lopper was originally called a louisette in honor of the good surgeon Louis, but after Guillotin passionately lobbied for a more humane alternative to hanging during a debate on capital punishment, a royalist journal called Les Actes des Apôtres wrote and published a catchy song mocking the efforts of Guillotin (and his supporters) and asserting “his hand suddenly makes the machine that will kill us ‘simply’ and that we will call the Guillotine!”—thus sealing his eponymic fate. 

Though both Louis and Guillotin had hoped that humane (and private) executions would be the first step toward complete abolition of capital punishment, their ideals would not be realized in France for nearly two hundred more years. Instead, the newly “painless” beheadings became public spectacles in France. The scaffolds were surrounded by cheering families and tricoteuses (women who would knit and purl as the heads rolled). Small-scale toy models became children’s playthings, and some women even wore earrings modeled after “Madame Guillotine.”

During the Reign of Terror (1793–94) thousands were guillotined, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In the century that followed, its use spread around the world. Even Adolf Hitler was impressed with its speed and efficiency, and it is estimated that more than fifteen thousand German convicts lost their heads between 1933 and 1945. The last public execution by “the National Razor” in France was in 1939, but loppings continued in private through 1977, and the guillotine remained on the books as the official method of execution until the death penalty was abolished in France in 1981.

Guillotin himself died of natural causes in Paris in 1814, but his lamentable legacy with “Madame Guillotine” did not. His children spent many ensuing years unsuccessfully petitioning the French government to formally change the name of the device before eventually changing their own names instead.

May 23, 2016


Today is the birthday of the whimsically whiskered Ambrose Burnside.

n. short whiskers grown only on the cheeks
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Though they enjoy a popular counter-culture resurgence every few decades (and remain a fashion mainstay for particular niches of the entertainment industry), the golden age of sideburns was unquestionably the American Civil War—led by the hirsute charge of Ambrose Burnside, who will long be remembered not for his positions as a general, governor, senator, or even president of the National Rifle Association, but for his outrageous facial hair.

Burnside was born in Indiana in 1824 and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1843. He guarded garrisons in the Mexican-American war, protected Western mail routes in the U.S. cavalry, and received an Apache arrow in the neck before first leaving the Army in 1853. He remained in the Rhode Island militia, however, and manufactured his namesake Burnside carbine rifle until a string of bad luck forced him to sell his patent after his factory burned down and he lost an expensive Congressional race.

The outbreak of the Civil War seemed to give him a second chance and, rising up from his position as a brigadier general in the Rhode Island militia, he commanded an entire brigade at the Battle of Bull Run. Despite his acknowledged lack of military experience and his repeated insistence to Abraham Lincoln that he was not qualified for the job, Burnside was eventually appointed to succeed General George B. McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. However, after disastrous defeats at the Battle of Fredericksburg and later the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Burnside finally decided to resign.

Widely regarded in retrospect as being unfit for high command, Burnside is nonetheless remembered as an extraordinarily nice guy. He shook enough hands and slapped enough backs to become a railroad mogul, a governor and senator of Rhode Island, and the very first president of the NRA. But it was his signature facial hair—flamboyant mutton chops conjoined by a hearty mustache with a clean-shaven chin—that gave him infamy. His “burnsides” eventually flipped syllables to give us our sideburns today.

Sideburns have varied in length, shape, and name in subsequent years. They are called side-whiskers or sideboards in the United Kingdom. They have spanned the social map from presidents (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to actors (James Dean) to singers (Elvis Presley) to footballers (Joe Namath). There are mutton chops (flaring out across the jawline) and friendly mutton chops (connected with a mustache). There is even a special category for them in the bi-annual World Beard and Moustache Championships. A hairless chin remains sacrosanct, however, lest the jowls be joined to form a beard.

Among the most spectacular sideburns of history were the jaw-line drapes sported by Edward Sothern in his portrayal of the eccentric and dim-witted Lord Dundreary in Tom Taylor’s play Our American Cousin (later made extraordinarily famous for being the featured entertainment the night Abraham Lincoln was shot). Sothern’s sweeping facial locks eventually merited their own name (see dundrearies).

But the original hipster, Ambrose Burnside, died in 1881. He was quickly immortalized in stone, and his boundless whiskers, astride his noble steed, are now permanent residents in Providence, Rhode Island’s Burnside Park.

May 19, 2016

Melba toast

Today is the birthday of Dame Nellie Melba, heroine of theater and toaster.

n. bread sliced thin and dried by heat until brown and crisp
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

It may be hard to believe that saying “I am Melba” once opened doors the world over, but such was the case with the grand opera diva Dame Nellie Melba in the early twentieth century. Regrettably, today it will only get you a side of burned toast.

Helen Porter Mitchell was born outside of Melbourne, Australia, in the spring of 1861. Little Nellie, as her family called her, learned to play the piano but did not even consider pursuing a musical career until adulthood. She married and had a child in 1882 and soon found a rural life in Queensland unbearable. Though she would remain married for two more decades, she abandoned her husband and two-month-old son and fled to London to be an opera star. She was twenty-one years old.

Having no luck in England, Nellie went to study in Paris with Madame Mathilde Marchesi, who quickly identified her incomparable talent, encouraged her to adopt the stage name of Melba (abbreviated from her hometown), and ushered her to stardom. The extraordinary soprano debuted in Rigoletto in Brussels in 1887 and embarked on a spectacular forty-year career, with starring roles in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, London’s Covent Garden, La Scala, and the Paris Opera. She was even made a Dame of the British Empire in 1918. She was a true prima donna, famous for the silence! silence! signs in her London dressing room; her “I am Melba!” explanations for extravagant requests; and her private train car filled with fresh caviar. So why do we associate her with desiccated bread?

While on her meteoric rise to international fame at the turn of the century, Melba often resided at the Savoy Hotel in London, where Georges Auguste Escoffier was the famed executive chef. Like many opera singers before and since, Melba was frequently concerned about her weight, and she apparently often ordered plain toast in lieu of the heavy French dishes regularly prepared. Legend has it that an assistant chef one day accidentally overtoasted a particularly thin slice of bread and sent it out to the diva, much to the horror of Escoffier. Melba loved it, began ordering it specially, and a culinary legend was born.

Melba prolonged the end of her singing career with four years of farewell concerts from 1924 to 1928, leading to the Australian expression “more farewells than Nellie Melba.” She delivered her swan song in 1931, dying at the age of sixty-nine allegedly from complications following a face-lift. Headlines around the world announced her passing. Dozens of conservatories, music halls, and streets were named for her. Chef Escoffier (who adored the soprano) even named an elaborate dessert of vanilla ice cream, peaches, and raspberry sauce served betwixt the wings of a frozen swan for her (Peach Melba). But it is the inadvertent toast for which she is best remembered today.

May 04, 2016


Put away the patch, throw out the gum, and smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Today is the anniversary of the 1600 death of Jean Nicot de Villemain, namesake of your favorite addiction.

n. a poisonous alkaloid, C10H14N2, found in tobacco leaves, from which it is extracted as a colorless, oily, acrid, transparent liquid and used, ordinarily in an aqueous solution of its sulfate, as an insecticide
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

While other Frenchmen have since been described as colorless, oily, acrid, and transparent, nicotine’s namesake was also a diplomat and a scholar.

Ah, young love. In 1559 in Portugal, the regents for fresh-faced six-year-old French princess Marguerite de Valois and strapping five-year-old King Sebastian of Portugal discussed a pre-prepubescent love connection between these two naifs. Jean Nicot de Villemain was the French ambassador to Portugal in charge of negotiations. Though the royal union was ultimately unsuccessful, Nicot did manage to kindle France’s love affair with smoking. He sent back tobacco.

Native Americans had been smoking tabaco ritualistically for literally thousands of years before Christopher Columbus and crew were introduced to it by the islanders of Hispaniola. On Columbus’s second voyage to the New World, a tribe of Haitians demonstrated the sniffing of dried tobacco leaves as snuff. Though it is believed that French monk and explorer André Thévet may have been the first person to introduce the tobacco plant to Europe in the early sixteenth century, it was Nicot who garnered fame after sending plants and seeds to the French court. It was snuff, in particular, that turned queen mother Catherine de’ Medici’s head. She used it medicinally to treat her son’s migraines, and the Parisian elite soon could not get enough of this new wonder drug. Part of the often poisonous nightshade family, by the late 1500s all tobacco plants fell under the genus Nicotiana, in honor of the French diplomat.

It took more than two hundred years for nicotine itself to be isolated by chemists as a poison in 1828, and there was an early forensic case in 1851 where Belgian count Bocarmé was found guilty of murdering his brother-in-law with tobacco leaf extract. Created from dried tobacco leaves, a typical cigarette contains approximately one milligram of Nicot’s legacy as a stimulant, which is believed to be largely responsible for smoking’s addictiveness. In addition to its appearance in cigars, cigarettes, and pipes, nicotine was widely used as an insecticide into the twentieth century. Outside of recreational and pest-control use, tobacco leaves are also used to induce vomiting in Brazil, to prevent baldness in Colombia, to ease painful menstruation in Cuba, to treat snake bites in Ecuador, to repel insects in Iran, and to induce labor in Tanzania.

It is impossible to estimate how many lives Jean Nicot de Villemain has touched over the centuries, whether in leaf, gum, or even patch form. Despite being a true intellectual and the creator of one of the very first French dictionaries (published posthumously in 1606), it is the addictive weed for which he will always be remembered. His (perhaps self-promoting) dictionary defined nicotiane as “an herb of marvelous virtue against all wounds, ulcers, lupis, or other eroding ulcers of the face, herpes, and other such things.” He died in 1600 at the age of seventy.

May 02, 2016


Today is anniversary of the death of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the political leader so successful (for a short time) at fomenting the second Red Scare of 1947 to 1957 that the Cincinnati Reds baseball team temporarily changed their name to “Redlegs” to avoid being branded as communists. Born in 1908, it is from the junior senator that we draw the word McCarthyism.

n. a mid-20th century political attitude characterized chiefly by opposition to elements held to be subversive and by the use of tactics involving personal attacks on individuals by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations esp. on the basis of unsubstantiated charges
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

The word still used today to chastise demagoguery and bullying political douchebaggery is the namesake of Joseph Raymond McCarthy, voted “the worst U.S. senator” by the Senate press corps even before making his famous unsubstantiated claim in 1950 that he had an extensive list of known communists working in the State Department.

The early years of the Cold War in the United States were fraught with anxiety over Commie infiltration, and the government conducted more than one hundred investigations in the early 1950s trying to root out the Red Threat. Born in 1908, “Tail-Gunner Joe” McCarthy was a marine combat pilot in World War II before becoming a senator in the 1940s and building his political reputation making unsubstantiated accusations of espionage and treason, leading to the imprisonment of hundreds of Americans and the unemployment of thousands. His namesake was first coined in a political cartoon in 1950 when Herblock (Herbert Lawrence Block) famously drew four Republicans trying to force a party elephant to balance atop a swaying stack of tar buckets, the largest one, on the top, labeled “McCarthyism.”

While he is often associated with the sexier witch hunts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, McCarthy never browbeat any starlets or blacklisted any directors. As head of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, McCarthy was his own jackanapes and focused on communist infiltration of the State Department, government broadcasters, overseas librarians (whose card catalogs were allegedly bursting with burnable communist propaganda), and the U.S. Army. However, his name has since come to represent the entire era of paranoia and persecution.

McCarthy was ultimately unable to prove any wrongdoing by anyone anywhere, and his attacks on the army for alleged security lapses were followed the next year by separate and unrelated charges of abuse of power brought against him by the army (it is the thirty-six days of televised proceedings of these hearings that people most remember). He was ultimately acquitted, but the damage to his reputation was done. McCarthy’s fellow senators ultimately censured him in 1954 through a decisive dressing-down vote of 67–22, and he lost all of his political power, leading President Eisenhower to refer to his former nemesis’s legacy as “McCarthywasm.” The senator slipped increasingly into bouts of alcoholism and finally died from inflammation of his liver in 1957 at the tender age of forty-eight.

During his life, McCarthy had fully embraced his namesake, even co-opting it for the title of his book McCarthyism: The Fight for America. But cartoonist Herblock ultimately had the last laugh regarding his creation. He insisted there was “nothing particularly ingenious about the term, which is simply used to represent a national affliction that can hardly be described in any other way. If anyone has a prior claim on it, he’s welcome to the word and to the junior senator from Wisconsin along with it. I will also throw in a set of free dishes and a case of soap."

April 15, 2016


Today is the anniversary of the death of Madame de Pompadour, magnificently bouffanted and one of the most stylish women of eighteenth-century France. 

n. a woman’s hairdo in which the hair is swept up high from the forehead, usually over a roll
n. a man’s hairdo in which the hair is brushed up straight from the forehead­­
­—Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

The somewhat absurd hairstyle beloved by French courtesans and Elvis impersonators alike is the namesake of Madame de Pompadour, former mistress of King Louis XV.

Madame de Pompadour was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson in Paris in 1721. By all accounts she was extraordinarily beautiful, intelligent, and well-educated. She also had a bit of a stage mother who ensured that she would learn to play the clavichord, paint, get married, become friends with Voltaire, and charm the pantaloons off the king, all before her twenty-fourth birthday.

Within a month of their meeting, Louis XV had established Jeanne-Antoinette at Versailles as his mistress. He wooed her with an estate at Pompadour and gave her the title of marquise (more hoity than a countess, but not as toity as a duchess) so that she could appear in his court. Six months after seducing the king, the new Madame de Pompadour legally separated from her husband and began a lifelong crusade to have things named for her.

Despite being loathed by the upper crust for her bourgeoisie background, she became a trusted advisor to the king, and it was she who recommended the hiring of her dear friend 
Étienne de Silhouette to be France's new Controller-General (see silhouette). Outside of politics, she was a devoted patron of the decorative arts, and the unrivaled center of the Parisian fashion scene. Her support of porcelain manufacturing led to the creation of Pompadour pink, a specific color for fine ceramics. Handbags, silks embroidered with sprigs of flowers, and even richly plumed birds (Xipholena punicea, the pompadour cotinga) all bore her name. Though she was only his mistress for five years, legend has it that, after she died at age forty-three from congested lungs, a grieving Louis XV commissioned his craftsmen to create the oblong marquise or navette cut for diamonds to remind him of the delicate shape of her mouth.

Well after her death, a purple-uniformed regiment of the British Army in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was nicknamed The Pompadours owing either to purple being her favorite color or—depending on the discretion of your source—the color of her underwear. Urban legend has also suggested that the classic French Champagne coupe may have been modeled from her breast—Marie Antoinette is another contender for this distinction—despite being designed several decades before either’s bosom sprung into public consciousness.

But it was her hair that brought her infamy. Though she classically wore it in loose rolls around her face, the style that became associated with her name eventually involved sweeping the hair upward to hang high above the forehead. And it was not simply for the ladies. As early as 1885, no less than the Atlanta Constitution newspaper recommended it for the gents:

“The pompadour is the most convenient way possible to wear the hair. It is cool, and simply running your fingers through it when you get up dresses it for the day.”

Elvis surely agreed. 

April 05, 2016


Today is the birthday of Sir Joseph Lister (1827), unwitting namesake of mouthwash. Rinse, gargle, and spit.

n. an antiseptic solution
—Oxford English Dictionary

Single women the world over rightfully curse the men who popularized the phrase “often a bridesmaid but never a bride,” many not realizing that it was part of a wildly successful advertising campaign for Listerine in the 1920s that warned young ladies that their bad breath might leave them old maids before their “tragic” thirtieth birthdays. Had he still been living, no one would have been cursing louder than eminent British surgeon Baron Joseph Lister who spent the last years of his life desperately trying to disassociate himself from a product that he neither invented nor endorsed.

Hospital wards in the mid-nineteenth century were stinking, seeping cesspools of infection. Windows were generally closed (limiting the influx of fresh air), surgeons did not wash their instruments or their hands prior to procedures, and wounds were rarely, if ever, flushed clean, providing literal breeding grounds for deadly microorganisms. When Joseph Lister was a young surgeon in the Male Accident Ward of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in the 1860s, more than half of his amputation patients died from sepsis, a bacterial wound infection.

Lister became fascinated with Louis Pasteur’s emerging theories on rot and fermentation and was convinced that his findings could be applied to medicine. At the time, Britain was more concerned with the cleanliness of its sewers than its hospitals, and carbolic acid had been used for years to improve the odor of its municipal muck. In 1865, Lister decided that what was good enough for British sewage was good enough for British patients, and he began swabbing his surgical tools and his wounds with carbolic acid. His mortality rate instantly dropped by 35 percent. He formalized his sterile operating procedures in 1867 (including forcing surgeons to wear clean gloves and wash their hands before and after surgeries), and they were quickly adopted worldwide.

Lister was made a baron in 1883 and enjoyed an extraordinarily successful medical career and respectable retirement until his death at the age of eighty-four in 1912. For his pioneering efforts, he became the namesake of the Royal Society’s prestigious Lister Medal and England’s Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine. He was commemorated on two postal stamps in 1965 and has public monuments in both London and Glasgow. Unfortunately, it is the now-ubiquitous Listerine that provides him with the most name recognition today.

In 1879, twelve years after Lister’s groundbreaking discoveries, Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Wheat Lambert used Lister’s research to formulate a surgical antiseptic that was eventually recommended for dentists in 1895. Over the shy and unassuming surgeon’s objections, the Lambert Pharmacal company marketed the product as Listerine and were selling it as the first over-the-counter mouthwash by 1914. According to company legend, once the general manager first heard that there was a medical term for bad breath (halitosis), his ad men embarked on a spectacular 1920s campaign castigating the social disgrace of foul mouth odor and skyrocketing Lambert Pharmacal’s profits into the millions.

Thankfully, for his sake, Lister did not live to witness the decades of absurd and misleading Listerine marketing ploys that hawked his namesake as everything from a dandruff suppressant, deodorant, and sore throat remedy to gonorrhea treatment, aftershave, and floor cleaner. 

March 09, 2016


Today in 1959 Ruth Handler debuted the doll that was named after her teenage daughter Barbara.

n. a woman who is likened to a Barbie doll, esp. in being pretty or shapely but passive, characterless, or unintelligent
Oxford English Dictionary

The original “Barbie” was an eighteen-year-old girl whose mother was convinced she would like to play with a German fashion doll for men, while the original “Ken” was her hapless brother who had the misfortune of being the only boy around when names were bandied about for Barbie’s on-again, off-again, sexually unthreatening “play pal.”

It all started with a sexy German toy sold in European bars and tobacco shops in the 1950s. Ruth and Elliot Handler bought several while traveling in Switzerland in 1956 and thought their teenage daughter Barbara would prefer them to the standard doll fare of the day. Under Ruth’s guidance, Elliott’s burgeoning toy company, Mattel, tweaked the design, named the plastic figure after their daughter, and introduced “Barbie” at the New York City toy fair in 1959. Two years later, in a marketing move that might just be as creepy as it sounds, the Handlers named Barbie’s boyfriend “Ken” after their real-life son Kenneth.

Ruth wanted her daughter and all young girls to have a doll that looked like a woman, and full breasts were always an essential part of the design. The original prototypes from the Japanese manufacturer were apparently so realistic that Mattel executives had to file down the nipples to make them less provocative, but the original proportions were still outrageous. The first Barbies on the market (a staggering 350,000 were sold in the first year alone), if extrapolated to human scale, would have had the unstable female measurements of a 39-inch chest, 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hips.

Social critics plagued Barbie from the beginning, and the new dolls sauntering on the scene often did not help matters. Slumber Party Barbie, issued in 1965, came with a bathroom scale indicating she weighed 110 pounds (approximately 35 pounds underweight given her projected 5-feet-9-inch height), and her packaging included a book on weight loss that advised girls not to eat. Researchers in Finland later theorized that a life-size Barbie would lack the body fat necessary to menstruate. Subsequent releases of Barbie warned girls that “Math class is tough!” and rolled around in wheelchairs that could not fit in the elevator of her own Dreamhouse.

And yet still they sold and continue to sell—two every second (if Mattel executives are to be believed)—in more than 150 countries. The word “Barbie” took on its derogatory bimbo meaning in the early 1970s, and the artistic backlash against the doll over the last thirty-five years has included Barbie bits in blenders, S&M outfits (see sadism and masochism), and countless parodies in print, television, and plastic. Daughter Barbara Handler seemed always to resent the association to her plastic namesake. “Much of me is very proud that my folks invented the doll. I just wish I wasn’t attached to it.”

The epilogue of Barbie’s inventor is a remarkable story in and of itself, as the shape of women’s breasts once again provided the inspiration for her last commercial venture. Ruth Handler was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970. Following a mastectomy, she ended up manufacturing a new, more-realistic prosthetic for women—the “Nearly Me.” Doctor Barbie—who debuted in 1987 with the tagline “She changes from doctor to glorious date!”—could not have been prouder.