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An Uncommon History of Common Things

Bethanne Patrick and John Thompson

(National Geographic Books; US: Nov 2009)

An Uncommon History of Common Things ruined my social life.


Shortly after I began reading this densely packed volume, full of historical biographies of most of the nouns we encounter in our daily life, the wealth of information within began seeping into my everyday conversation. For instance, showing up at a dinner party, a friend greeted me with an earnest handshake, and I remarked that the handshake developed in England several hundred years ago as a means for people (men, particularly) to demonstrate that they were not holding weapons. While the gesture currently demonstrates respect, I continued, George Washington considered handshaking to be for the common folk, and preferred to bow instead. After thanking me for not bowing, he brought me to the living room.


There, I noted that several of the guests was wearing high heels, and I offered that according to An Uncommon History of Common Things, the high heel did not develop as a means of enhancing the appearance of a woman’s legs, but for more practical reasons: In ancient Rome, actors used heels of various size to adjust their height depending on the role, while Egyptian butchers wore high heels to avoid stepping in the pools of blood that accumulated on the floor. While high heels in various forms appeared throughout the world for many centuries, they weren’t popular in the United States until the early 20th century because early Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony associated them with witches and forbade the wearing of such shoes. 


Amid a chorus of “hmm"s and “interesting”, several of the guests excused themselves to the kitchen to refresh their nearly full drinks. I followed them, explaining that the kitchen is likely the oldest of architectural rooms. I referenced the same book, explaining that early humans who sat around a fire to cook their foods had created the de facto kitchen. In medieval Rome, as well as in the longhouses of Native American cultures, food was cooked in communal kitchens. I pointed out that this history of gathering in the kitchen continued today, as the kitchen is a common congregation area for most dinner parties—though it wasn’t true of this party, since the kitchen began emptying as I spoke. I suspected people were going to other rooms to share the fascinating information I had acquired from the book.


While I had expected An Uncommon History of Common Things to provide a thorough examination of a select group of curious items, much like the interesting One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver, this volume, from the brilliant folks at National Geographic, documents the origins of a massive array of foods, objects, symbols, beliefs, customs, ceremonies—in short, it seems to endeavor to provide a brief history of nearly everything.


For a fan of such minutia, it’s fantastic fun. Every entry is short, so in a single session, the reader can focus on a topic and learn about holidays from Valentine’s Day to New Year’s Eve, from Ramadan to Kwanzaa. Or they can flip through the pages and quickly read about the origins of the zipper, the peace symbol, central heating, and the 21-gun salute.


This type of information may not appeal to everyone. I have learned that many people are content to turn a doorknob without knowing the history of the device or that its patent in 1878 came long after similar latch systems had been in common use. These same people seem to find no additional joy in a chocolate bar when told that the first chocolate bar was introduced by Joseph Fry & Sons in 1847. In fact, no matter how much I try to enlighten certain friends to the rich history behind common things—and believe me, I have shared—they seem to prefer not knowing.


I can tell, because ever since reading this incredibly broad collection of historical facts and sharing the information at parties, I rarely have occasion to attend parties, anymore. So I just let people know, if you are interested in learning the condensed origins of our favorite foods, pastimes, and passions, An Uncommon History of Common Things is the book for you.

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William Reagan is a freelance advertising copywriter specializing in compressing large concepts into short sentences. He enjoys observing the American political system in the same way voyeurs stare at car wrecks on the side of the highway, less concerned with who was involved than with the particulars of how it happened. (It's best not to drive behind him during an election year.) He squirrels away his literary acorns at WilliamReagan.com.


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