Sure, large stretches of Russia are essentially a frozen wasteland for half of the year, but that’s no reason not to have fun. In fact, starting in the 17th century, the Russians developed a unique winter pastime. Called the Russian Mountain, it involved a scaffolding (sometimes up to 200 feet tall) built to support a wooden ramp, which would then be covered with ice to create an instant, high-adrenaline sledding hill. The Russian Mountains were so popular that Catherine the Great not only demanded to have one built at her private residence, but it also required that it be available for her use during the summer as well. That presented a bit of a problem. But after some thought, her enterprising engineers came up with a modified version that, instead of relying on ice, used wheels to send its toboggans careening along a sloping track. Enterprising businessmen began to copy this new thrill ride—which one might describe as involving rolling and coasting—all across Europe and eventually across the Atlantic, where innovations like the circular track and the “lift hill” were perfected. Ironically, when the new, American-style roller coasters began to pop up in Russia a hundred years later, they were known as “American Mountains.”
“Not for all the tea in China!” It’s an oldie but a goodie, but how old is it, and just how much in goods does it represent? The colorful metaphor for “never ever” hails from the late 19th or early 20th century. The earliest reference may lie in J. J. Mann’s 1914 travelogue Round the World in a Motor Car, though the book may be referencing an earlier colloquialism. In any case, understanding the phrase requires being steeped in a modicum of geography and global economics. Simply put, China is a big country that produces a lot of tea, so all of that production would equal a small fortune. To turn down such a slice of the Chinese GDP underscores the magnitude of the rejection. But have you ever wondered how much we’re talking dollar-wise? China’s total tea production in 2013 was worth roughly 17.5 billion dollars. That’s billion with a B. Still sure you want to turn that down? Maybe you should consult the tea leaves.
That, like your eligibility for the Olympics, depends on your age. During the 1940s, studies showed that 75% of Americans reported rarely or never seeing any color in their dreams. Today, those numbers are reversed. One big reason is traced back to our sources of entertainment—we watch TV in HD color, we dream in HD color. In more recent studies, people 25 and younger report never dreaming in black and white, whereas people over 55 reported to dreaming in black and white a quarter of the time, which is linked to childhood exposure to black and white television. The jury’s still out on what childhood exposure to birthday clowns can do to your dreams.
Yeah, sure, there’s the whole “exposure your kids to culture” reason. But perhaps the more important reason to take children to the museum is that if they go without adult supervision, they may embark on a short-lived but highly lucrative career of art theft. Seriously, it can happen. Take the case of 15-year-old Laurence McCall. He was fond of visiting the Alfred O. Deshong Museum in Chester, Pennsylvania—so much so that he felt compelled to start bringing the artwork home. This was a small museum in the 1970s, so its security system was limited to guards walking the floor. So all young Mr. McCall needed to do was wait until the guard had passed, take the painting off the wall and slide it out an open window. But McCall wasn’t just an art lover, he was also a reader, and when he read an article in the New York Times about how much art could sell for, his appreciation rose to whole new levels. In time, he started selling to private collectors. And then he started selling paintings through Sotheby’s auction house in New York. And if anyone found it suspicious that a teenager was depositing checks for $30,000, driving a Jaguar, and living in his own, 30th floor apartment, no one said anything about it. That is, until they did. By the time he was caught at age 19, it was believed he had stolen at least $400,000 art from the Deshong museum—nearly half of their collection. They couldn’t actually prove that he had stolen the paintings, but they were able to convict him for not paying his taxes. He was imprisoned for three years, and will probably be paying of his debt to the IRS for the rest of his life. And now, when you see those signs in the museum saying “No Unattended Children”, you will know why.
This uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing condition is all too common, especially right before dinner is served. Sure, the less-informed may simply refer to the affliction as “stomach grumbling”, but anything sounds more respectable when given its proper medical name, don’t you think? If dinner is served and the main course is rather spicy, you may come down with acute gustatory rhinitis—food-induced runny nose. If you’re not careful as you eat, you may suffer from morsicatio buccarum, and no one enjoys that feeling when you bite your cheek. You won’t sneeze during dinner, exactly, but if someone sprinkles too much pepper nearby, you may need to sternutate. And the highfalutin health risks don’t stop with the main course, oh no. That ice cream sundae for desert is the leading cause of sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. (That’s “ice cream headache” in plain English.)
Giving someone a high five feels like the perfect way to celebrate some accomplishment—so natural that it must have descended through time immemorial, back to toga-bedecked, ancient Greeks slapping raised palms in the Parthenon. But no. Some people will be surprised to learn that the phrase “high five” didn’t enter the dictionary until 1980. The earlier evolution of the gesture—the “low” five—had existed since WWII as a youthful twist on the handshake. But starting in the 1970s, the high five began to appear among professional sports players, and from there spread into the popular culture. The first slap heard round the world may have been on Oct. 2, 1977 in Dodger Stadium. That was the day when Dusty Baker hit his 30th home run of the season, which made the Los Angeles Dodgers the first team in history to have three players hit that mark in a single season. As he ran back toward the plate, his friend and teammate Glenn Burke was there, hand reached out in celebration, and Baker—wanting to return the gesture, somehow—reached up his own hand and slapped it. There are other athletes who also claim to have done the first high five, and it’s more than likely that it was spontaneously invented in several places independently. But whatever the case, it is clearly a gesture whose time had come.
It sure must have seemed that way in the early 20th century. Women had worn their hair long in Western culture for centuries, and the latest look at the turn of the century—the Gibson girl—required long tresses piled luxuriantly on top of the head. So during WWI, when women began cutting their hair at ear-level, it was considered rather scandalous. But 1915 was a tipping point, when famed ballroom dancer Irene Castle introduced the “Castle Bob” haircut. Suddenly short hair for women entered the mainstream, along with other shocking fashions, such as high hemlines and cloche hats—which could only be worn by those with short hair. Hairdressers were initially so resistant to the new trend that women would line up outside of men’s barbershops just to get their locks sheered. So did the bob make women wild? Not exactly. The fact is that, in the beginning, short hair was a practical choice for women during the war who were joining the workforce. Long hair is lovely for a magazine spread, but impractical when working with heavy machinery. And even Irene Castle picked her signature look for its ease when dancing. It was only later, in the 1920s, when women—now with a literal weight off their minds—began wondering what additional kinds of liberation they might enjoy.
The numbered game of chance we know and love has been around in some form since the early 1500s in Italy. It was known as a “lotto” game and took on many forms, including educational variations that taught children to recognize numbers. Around the early 1900s, a form of the game called “Beano” became very popular. Players would mark their cards with beans, and once a row was completed, they’d yell “BEANO!” In 1929, toy salesman Edwin Lowe stopped in on a Beano game in Georgia. After seeing people get so competitive over the fate of a few beans, he was eager to play the game back at home with his friends. He made some cards and let the games begin. Needless to say the game got spirited, as anyone who has waited six turns for a darn N22 would understand. When one of Lowe’s friends finally hit Beano, she leapt to her feet, tongue-tied with excitement. She stammered “B-B-B-Biiingo?!” Clearly a more snappy exclamation than “beano,” BINGO stuck, and Lowe made the first official BINGO game shortly after.