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Bubble Gum and Hula Hoops: The Origins of Objects in Our Everyday Lives

Harry Oliver

(Penguin; US: )

What has been around longer—the fork or false teeth?


Why do goats deserve some credit for coffee?


Who really did invent the Internet?


If these are the kinds of questions that make your ears perk, consider picking up Harry Oliver’s Bubble Gum and Hula Hoops: The Origins of Objects in Our Everyday Lives. As the title suggests, the book examines “the amazing things man has come up with, and the why and how of the objects we so often take for granted”. Written with a slight nod to the American culture (a British version titled Cat Flaps and Mousetraps was published in 2007), the book looks at everything from household appliances and communication devices to food and clothing. 


The book is well-researched, and many entries are filled with simple fun. Audiences learn that hula hoops were once banned in Japan because of “all that indecent hip-wiggling”, that Isaac Newton invented the kitty door so his cat could visit him in his laboratory without letting in the sun, and that Leonardo de Vinci came up with the idea of contact lenses.


One of my favorite entries discusses the history of the vacuum cleaner. After reading the opening line—“the vacuum cleaner is perhaps the only invention whose history begins with a handkerchief stuffed in a man’s mouth”—I was hooked. Entries on the baguette, the dishwasher, French fries, and lipstick are also delightfully entertaining.


Again, the range of subjects is impressive: cotton swabs, Rubik’s Cube, suntan lotion, the Slinky, the airplane, flush toilets, Gummi Bears, and pregnancy tests, just to name a few. And while many today might not think of an iron lung as an everyday item, it too is covered. These objects and many, many more are included.  But the breadth of the book is also where a small problem comes in.


Almost all the entries are at least somewhat interesting. However, some entries, like the one on the vacuum cleaner, go up another level to entertaining. Others, such as the entry on the cocktail, are just downright funny. After all, it is a little humorous to learn that those trendy and expensive martinis and Cosmopolitans were once decorated with chicken feathers—hence the name cocktail.


On the other hand, some entries are merely interesting or even drop down just a tad to “okay”. The reason is simple: most of these entries don’t tell a story or include any type of humorous anecdote. This is why the entry on alcohol is interesting but not particularly entertaining. The candle is another entry that is okay but not memorable. 


Both of these entries give some good factual information. For example, audiences learn that solid candles were first developed in 3000 BC and that Michel Chevreul, a French chemist, created the stearin candle in the early 1800s. Certainly, this is important information about the origin of the candle, but the names and dates, along with some of the technical terms such as glyceryl ester, will be hard to remember because this entry just contains the facts and rather dry facts at that.


In the entry on alcohol, Oliver reveals that people have been getting drunk for thousands of years and that laws regulating alcohol have been in place since 1770 BC. Yes, this is interesting, but add a humorous anecdote, and the entry moves from interesting to really entertaining. 


Obviously, if Oliver wanted to include a huge range of everyday items, which clearly he did, readers must take the regular old interesting entries along with entries that make them laugh out loud and plan ways to impress their friends and loved ones with their new found knowledge that the burglar alarm was slow to sell because Americans were more afraid of electricity in the 1850s (and with good reason) than they were of being robbed. 


Of course, the entry on dental floss indicates that Oliver was aware that some subjects simply couldn’t be made interesting. In this entry, Oliver relates that the only thing as dull as using dental floss is the history of dental floss. 


Another slight irritant is the lack of consistency in the writing.  Some of the entries open with questions or phrases that really draw in the audience. They have a friendly tone that lets the audience connect with the author, almost making the book a conversation rather than a static text. A few entries, however, sound a little more formal or academic, as if they belong in a book that is meant to be read with a highlighter in a quiet library. Oliver’s book is a book to be treasured for making long car trips pass quickly or to be used to break the ice at a party, and it needs a tone to match. For the most part, the tone does match, and when the book uses this lighthearted and approachable tone, it engages readers and makes them forget they might be actually learning something.  But when the passive and more academic voice pops up, Bubble Gum and Hula Hoops reads just a little too much like a history textbook.

Still, these are small flaws in an overall entertaining book. If you are a trivia junkie who watches Jeopardy or likes reading Mental Floss, consider picking up Bubble Gum and Hula Hoops; it will certainly keep you amused for an afternoon.

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