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The Uncommon Life

The Best of Uncommon Knowledge: 10 Tidbits to Tighten Your Trivia Game

September 10, 2015

The Best of Uncommon Knowledge | UncommonGoods

Have you ever wondered why so many things are referred to as things or why we wish upon stars? We do, and we’re not about to just sit around wondering! Each week we go out and find a bit of Uncommon Knowledge that answers one of those less-than-pressing, but certainly entertaining, questions. We’ve compiled quite the collection of trivial tidbits over the years, and we figured it was about time to find out which fun facts our readers find the most interesting. The 10 questions below received the most clicks from customers when featured in our weekly emails. (We threw in the answers, too.)

Why are moonshine jugs marked XXX?

Personalized Whiskey Barrel | UncommonGoods

 Personalized Whiskey Barrel

Most of us have only seen them in cartoons or caricatures, but we all know what it means: an old-fashioned jug marked with XXX is full of moonshine. It turns out that the marks refer specifically to moonshine’s distilling process. The moonshiners would start by distilling a mash of fermented sugar cane pulp. The resulting liquid, known as the “singlings,” is foul-tasting and a mere 30-40% alcohol by volume. To get the kick that moonshine is known for, it has to go through two more distillations—rendering it almost 100% pure alcohol. The three X’s on the jug were meant to signify that its contents had completed that triple-step process, and also that it might just be strong enough to knock your shoes off, curl your hair, and take your breath away for the next thirty-six hours.

Why do refined people have blue blood?

Anatomical Heart Pendant | UncommonGoodsAnatomical Heart Pendant 

They don’t. No one does. Blood does vary in color—but only from bright red to dark red. The fact that some blood vessels appear blue beneath the skin is actually trick of the light. Much in the same way that the ocean looks blue even though water itself has no color, when light passes through the outer layers of our skin and bounces off a blood vessel, the frequency most likely to bounce back out to our eyes is blue. That does not have any effect on the color of the blood itself. However, this misconception has long been a tool for supporting class distinction. Starting as far back as medieval Spain, being able to see veins of “sangre azul” beneath pale skin was a mark of a privileged, sheltered life that was unavailable to the sun-tanned working class. And though now we live in an age where sun-starved office workers dream of luxuriating out on the beach somewhere, our blue-blooded illusion of the upper class remains.

Are you a citizen of Pelisipia?

Scratch Map | UncommonGoods

Scratch Map

If Thomas Jefferson had had his way, you might be. In 1787, the newly-formed government of the United States passed an ordinance claiming the land south of the Great Lakes as American soil. Called the Northwest Territory, this act established the pattern by which the government would expand its borders westward: by creating new states rather than by expanding existing ones. Thomas Jefferson was one of the early proponents of this plan. The author of the Declaration of Independence turned his pen to the map of this new frontier, drew straight lines dividing the area into seventeen proposed states, and invented names for them all using a combination of Latin and Native American words. Some of those names, like Illinoia and Michigania, were adapted into official usage. Others, however, would have given an entirely different flavor to the American landscape. Can you imagine hailing from the great states of Metropotamia, Equitasia, Chersonesus, Assenisipia?

Can math save your toast?

Toaster Grilled Cheese Bags | UncommonGoods

Toaster Grilled Cheese Bags

We’ve all experienced the devastating loss of freshly buttered toast. One careless knock off the plate, a case of…butterfingers…en route to your mouth, and the whole slice goes plummeting to its certain doom—almost always to land butter-side down. Conventional wisdom would suggest that you only stand a 50-50 chance of completely ruining breakfast. However, conventional wisdom does not take into account the nature of bread. Bread is made up of delicious pockets of air, which affect its drag as it falls. Cover up those pockets with butter, and you have a rotation situation, meaning (according to science) the bread is only able to rotate one and a half times on its way to your kitchen tile. If your table is standard height, this means you’ll probably be cleaning butter off the floor in the near future. So what’s a bruncher to do? After dropping 100 perfectly good pieces of toast, food science specialists determined that an eight-foot tall table would allow for a full 360-degree rotation, and the salvation of your morning carbohydrate. Incredibly tall toast fans rejoice!

Does short hair make women wild?

Honey Bears Shampoo and Conditioner Set | UncommonGoodsHoney Bears Shampoo and Conditioner Set

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.

Did you inherit DNA from both parents?

Genetic Code Glasses | UncommonGoods

Genetic Code Glasses

Yes and no. The kind of DNA that we typically think of in our cells, which is responsible for giving you your father’s nose or your mother’s dimples, definitely comes from both parents. However, that’s not the only kind of DNA you have. Inside your cells are a variety of “organelles” that perform specific functions. One of those, the mitochondrion, is known as the cell’s power plant. It also happens to contain its own independent set of DNA. Research suggests that this genetic material actually has a separate evolutionary origin than our regular DNA, and that mitochondria may have once been bacteria that established a symbiotic relationship within our cells. The other surprising fact about mitochondrial DNA? Children only inherit it from their mothers.

Are beards good for you?

Razor Pit Sharpener | UncommonGoodsRazor Pit Sharpener

It has been scientifically proven that beards are awesome. For one thing, a beard can literally save you from cancer, by blocking 90% of the UV rays that would ordinarily be hitting your face. Since UV radiation also causes signs of aging in skin, a beard can keep you looking younger longer. Facial hair can also reduce your trouble with allergies, by trapping dust and pollen. On the other hand, shaving can cause skin irritation, ingrown hair and bacterial infections. So don’t just grow that beard to enhance your rugged manliness. Grow it for your health.

Why do you want to eat a baby?

Egg Roll Baby | UncommonGoods

Egg Roll Baby

You know all those times when seeing a newborn makes you say, “Oh, what a sweet baby! I could just eat you right up!” Or that inclination to pop those cute little toes into your mouth, or to blow a raspberry on that roly-poly tummy? Research suggests that you do those things because babies make you subconsciously think about food. It’s the smell that does it. The scent of a newborn baby activates the area of the brain that controls food cravings, and prompts a release of the feel-good chemical dopamine. Fortunately, this hunger doesn’t drive us to literally eat our young. Instead, it gives us a craving to nurture, feed and protect those precious little dumplings.

How powerful is a name?Personalized Subway House Sign | UncommonGoodsPersonalized House Sign – Times Square Subway

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but an embarrassing nickname can haunt you for centuries. King Alfonso IX of Leon, for example, is still recorded in the history books as “The Slobberer” because of his tendency to foam at the mouth when angry. Sometimes, however, the nicknames stick so well that we don’t even realize they are nicknames. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was given his nickname because he used the word “che” so often—it’s the Argentine equivalent of saying “dude” or “bro.” The ancient Greek philosopher Plato was actually named Aristocles. The name Plato was supposedly given to him by his wrestling coach, and means “broad”—perhaps the ancient Greek version of “tubby.” But when a nickname sticks, sometimes the best defense is to run with it. When James Hickock couldn’t shake the nickname “Duck Bill”—a reference to his large nose and protruding upper lip—he instead altered it just a bit, and became known as Wild Bill Hickok, one of the most famous gunslingers of the American West.

Why are wedding cakes so tall?

Gold Rimmed Serving Pedestal | UncommonGoods

Gold Rimmed Serving Pedestal 

Those hilarious videos you’ve seen online, where hapless newlyweds accidentally topple their towering wedding cakes, are actually right in line with a centuries-old tradition. Before wedding cakes as we know them were developed, a tradition in medieval England was to celebrate a marriage with a towering pile of sweetened buns. The bread was heaped high on the table, and if the couple could reach across for a kiss without knocking any over, they were said to be guaranteed a life of happiness together. It seems likely that the guests would leave the stack just short enough for the bride and groom to succeed—and yet, the entertainment value of seeing it fall must have been a sore temptation. So, perhaps all of these collapsing confections in the videos are not accidents, but exactly what the wedding cake was originally designed to do.

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The Uncommon Life

Sláinte! Here’s to the ‘Water of Life’ on St. Paddy’s

March 15, 2012

You might not feel particularly lively the morning after a festive St. Patrick’s celebration, but that doesn’t stop many from partaking in the “water of life” in celebration of Ireland. In other words, the rivers of Whiskey will flow on March, 17.

This golden-brown beverage has a rich history, so we thought we’d share a little more about Irish Whiskey.

Whiskey Stones

Whiskey Stones Gift Set

Uisce on the rocks, please.
Actually, whiskey as we know it came to be in Ireland. In the 6th century Monks used distilled grains as the base for medicines. They called it “Uisce Beatha,” in Goidelic, or “water of life,” thanks to its healing properties. (While some may argue that whiskey doesn’t have any healing properties, keep in mind that it is antiseptic and a pain killer.) Over time, the spirit became known as “whiskey,” a mispronunciation of “Uisce.”

Irish Spirit
Whiskey love spread across Europe over time. For example, to Scotland, where it developed in to Scotch. It’s said that Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed imbibing in the distilled drink, and Peter the Great once proclaimed, “of all the wines, the Irish spirit is the best.”

clover and little white flowers image by roens

Spell it how you want–just don’t spill it!
Irish Whiskey remains a favorite, and will certainly be enjoyed the world over on St. Paddy’s, but it’s competition has grown over time. English Whisky, and North American rivals like Canadian Whisky, Bourbon, and Tennessee Whiskey now compete with the original.

Each variety is unique, since the recipes are different. While we can’t help you distinguish the subtle taste differences between a Straight Bourbon and a single-malt Scotch, we can provide a little tip to help you determine wither it’s whiskey or whisky. Countries with an “e” in their name produce whiskey–like Ireland’s Whiskey. No “e” in the country means no “e” in the drink–like Scotch Whisky.

Whiskey Business
Since you won’t want to be caught drinking the wrong whiskey on St. Patrick’s Day, here are a few notes on what makes the original malt masterpiece truly Irish. First, as Tennessee Whiskey must come from Tennessee and Scotch must come from Scotland, Irish Whiskey must be distilled in Ireland or Northern Ireland from native ingredients. Also, true Irish Whiskey comes from a yeast-fermented grain mash that is aged in an oak barrel for a minimum of 3 years. Different brands of Irish Whiskey do have their own subtle flavors, so you’ll have options when it comes time to toast to good health. Sláinte!

Shot Spilz Glasses

Sources: Little Shamrocks, Tullamore Dew, Whiskey Guild, Real Men Drink Whiskey, The Kitchn

The Uncommon Life

Why Do We Send Valentines? 10 Uncommon Facts About Valentine’s Day

January 26, 2012

Valentine’s day is a pretty special day. Whether you’re lucky in love, celebrate with single friends, or share the day with family members, you likely have something planned for February 14.

But, why is the occasion so important? Here are a few fun facts about St. Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day Cupcakes, photo by Dyanna

Who is this St. Valentine guy, anyway?
Today, the Catholic church actually recognizes three saints by the name of Valentine or Valentinus. Each St. Valentine was martyred.

So, which one is the St. Valentine of St. Valentine’s Day?
Legend has it that the St. Valentine was a priest in Rome during the third century. The emperor at the time, Claudius II, decided that single men made better soldiers, not having their hearts promised to special someones and all. So, ol’ Claud outlawed Marriage. Valentine didn’t agree with the emperor’s rule and went around marrying folks anyway. Eventually, Valentine got caught and Claudius sentenced him to death for his defiance.

What does that have to do with cards and flowers?
Some believe that the St. Valentine fell in love while he was imprisoned and sent letters to his lover before he was martyred. Others say that another Valentine is responsible for ‘Valentines.’ Either way, the legend says that a man named Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter while in prison. She secretly visited him in captivity, and before he died he wrote her a letter signed, “From your Valentine.”

21746_love_carries_all

Does that mean that Valentine’s Day is the biggest greeting card day of the year?
Not quite! Christmas is still the number one there. More greeting cards are sent on Christmas than any other day, but Valentine’s Day comes in second place.

Why is Valentine’s Day on February 14?
This is another question that’s answer has been argued over the years. Some folks say it’s because St. Valentine died in mid February. Other’s claim that it has to do with the ancient Roman Lupercalia festival, which took place on Feb. 15. The festival marked the start of spring and celebrated fertility.

Did the ancient Romans give each other Valentines?
Not exactly. The Lupercalia festival started with the sacrifice of a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. Boys would slice the goat’s hide into strips, dip them in sacrificial blood, and and run around slapping women with the goathide strips. The women actually welcomed the slapping, because it was believed being touched by the sacrificial strips made them more fertile.

How else did they celebrate?
After the slap-fest, women would enter their names in an urn. The men would then draw names from the urn to chose the women they would be paired with for the upcoming year. These pairings often resulted in marriage.

Interesting tradition! So, that ended with the Romans?
Yes and no. While the custom of using a “lottery” to pick marriage partners didn’t last, the tradition did, in a way, live on. In England in the middle ages young men and women drew names to choose their Valentines. Then, they would pin the name to their sleeve. It’s believed that the term “wear your heart on your sleeve” comes from this custom.

hearts, photo by Barbtrek

How did our modern traditions come about?
While the oldest known Valentine still in existence is a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife in 1415, Valentine’s got a boost in popularity when Massachusetts native Esther Howland started selling the first mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards in the 1840s.

And that brings us to today…
Now, the average American spends about $100 on Valentine’s Day gifts, meals, and entertainment each year. As for cards, about 85% of those are sent by women. That isn’t saying that men don’t appreciate their Valentines. 73% of Valentine’s Day flower purchases are made by men.

Of course, flowers and cards aren’t the only way to celebrate this day of love. We have all kinds of gifts to help you make Valentine’s day extra special for the love of your life!

Sources: History.com, Kaboose, Women’s Day, About.com