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History

The Uncommon Life

Material Matters: The Beauty of Brass

May 2, 2017

From prized carousel rings to shiny Sousaphones, brass is a storied substance with many contributions to material culture. This alloy of copper and zinc combined in 60 official formulas has a long history. The Chinese may have made it by accident in the 5th century BCE. They melted down zinc-rich copper ores and—presto—brass. More deliberately, the Greeks and Romans combined the two elements to form brass through a process that remained the industry standard through the late 19th century. Continue Reading…

The Uncommon Life

Vintage Wisdom: 10 Uncommon Facts About Wine

May 25, 2016

Wine is bottled poetry ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

I cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the food. ~ W. C. Fields

Whether you’re a sophisticated sommelier or just enjoy a nice glass of vino with friends and a good meal, wine is a storied substance with a fascinating history. It can be daunting to uncork the subject, so to begin, may we suggest this vintage collection of ten uncommon facts?

Wine has a Long History

Wine production began in the Ancient Mediterranean around 6,000 BCE. The mood-altering properties of the alcohol in wine were soon associated with mysticism and religion, from the hedonistic rites of Dionysus and Bacchus to the sacraments of Christianity. But the fermented grape products of the ancient world left something to be desired. Wine as we know it today was born circa 1091 CE with the Cistercian order in Burgundy. They planted grapes at Clos de Vougeot and are credited with organizing vineyard parcels based on how the wine tasted, the modern mode of vintages followed to this day.

Continue Reading…

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What’s the World’s Oldest Love Song?

February 1, 2016

Heart Venn Diagram Print | UncommonGoodsOdes to love are almost as old as language and love itself. For many years, the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) from the Old Testament of the Bible was widely considered to be the earliest poetic tribute to matters of the heart. But in 1951, Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer found an older ode on a cuneiform tablet from the excavation of the Mesopotamian city of Nineveh. It had been unearthed in the mid-nineteenth century but put in a drawer until Kramer rediscovered it. When he translated it, Kramer found the tablet contains the Love Song for Shu-Sin (c. 2,000 BCE), part of an annual rite known as the “sacred marriage.” Sounds pretty tame and ceremonial, right? Guess again—it’s actually pretty steamy stuff, offering lines like You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you. Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber…Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber. So, before Solomon’s lover likened his lady to “a mare among Pharaoh’s chariot horses”—and a couple of millennia before slow jams—the Neo-Assyrians were heating things up with a love song for the ages.

Heart Venn Diagram Linocut Print | $28

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Can You Set Your Alarm to “Window Tap”?

November 8, 2015

Cube LED Alarm Clock | UncommonGoods

If you think hitting the snooze button is risky now, you would have been in some trouble during Industrial Revolution-era Britain and Ireland. Back then, alarm clocks were pricey and erratic, leaving workers with no way to guarantee making it to work on time. Enter the knocker-upper. While it may not be the most creatively named title, the job of the knocker-upper was to knock on your windows at a predetermined time until you woke up. The hired hands were mostly freelancers looking to earn some extra cash and they used long sticks of lightweight wood to reach upper floors. Once the 1920s hit, alarm clocks became more reliable and affordable and the job of a knocker-upper faded into obscurity. You could probably set your phone’s alarm to sound like a window bang though, if you could use some nostalgia with your morning.

Cube LED Alarm Clock | $32

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: How Old Are Drones?

October 27, 2015

Formations | UncommonGoods

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or “drones”) as we know them have only been around for about 15 years, but like so many things in modern culture, they may have ancient ancestors. Best known for their controversial military uses, drones also have many peaceful, civilian applications, from sweeping aerial shots for films to dropping off your packaged instant gratification. But the oldest aerial drone or robot might just be the steam-powered pigeon of Archytas. In the 5th century BCE, the Greek polymath Archytas invented a self-propelled, pigeon-shaped flying machine. Assuming his design worked, it may have flown several hundred meters, powered by a jet of steam or compressed air from an internal bladder. Archytas may have been most interested in testing theories of aerodynamics, rather than spying on the Spartans, and his wooden robot bird is a far cry from the hovering, high-tech drones of today, but I’m droning on…and this history is for the birds anyway.

Formation | $225

The Uncommon Life

Brews You Can Use: 10 Uncommon Facts About Beer

October 2, 2015

 

14th Century Beer Stein | UncommonGoods14th Century Beer Stein 

With evidence of brewing dating from 9500 BCE, beer is an ancient elixir with an ancestry almost as old as civilization itself. After water and tea, it’s the third most consumed liquid in the world. So, with a history encompassing over 11,000 years and billions of barrels, it should come as no surprise that the story of beer includes many fascinating facts, astounding ingredients, and colorful characters.

In honor of Oktoberfest, when Munich welcomes thousands of revelers to quaff its best brews, here’s an uncommon look at the history of beer in the form of ten trivial draughts:

Oktoberfest Ale Beer Brewing Kit | UncommonGoods

 

Oktoberfest Ale Beer Brewing Kit

1) Beer was your best beverage bet in medieval Europe, when a drink of contaminated water could be fatal. Beer slogans at the time almost wrote themselves—“Beer: the Cholera-Free Alternative!” But the rise of beer as an everyday staple meant that unscrupulous brewers were prone to cut corners. Enter the Reinheitsgebot—a family of laws governing brewing first introduced in Bavaria in 1516. The best-known part of the law dictates that beer must contain only three ingredients: water, hops, and barley (yeast is essential, but hadn’t been discovered yet). While brewers through the centuries have continued to experiment with other ingredients seeking either distinctive results or cheaper production, the Reinheitsgebot set the gold standard for beer purists, with the diversity of styles stemming mainly from the types of malt and hops used.

Magnificent Multitude of Beer | UncommonGoods

 

The Magnificent Multitude of Beer Wood Engraving

2) But is it healthy? Citizens of the Czech Republic, who consume the most beer year after year (an impressive 150 liters per capita in 2014), would answer with a resounding “YES!” Along with their caloric content, many beers are good sources of B vitamins, which aid metabolism, and silicon, which helps improve bone matrix quality. Also, hops contain an antioxidant that’s been shown to ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So, a beer a day can help keep the doctor away…but everything in moderation, of course.

Beer Tasting Flight | UncommonGoods

Beer Tasting Flight

3) Now, about those calories. Because about 75% of the calories in beer come from its alcohol content (ABV, or alcohol by volume), lower alcohol beers are generally lower in calories. Dry stouts like Guinness (with an ABV of 4.2%), are less likely to make you stout than Belgian ales with higher ABVs. It’s a common misconception that darker beers are “stronger,” and therefore more calorie-laden, when in fact the opposite is often true. On the extreme end of the caloric / ABV spectrum is a barleywine with the intimidating name Snake Venom which boasts an ABV of 67.5% and a yellow warning flag on each bottle neck that resembles police caution tape (for good reason).

HTML Beer Glasses | UncommonGoods

HTML Beer Glasses

4) Drink-on-a-dare beers aside, how do you get your daily dose of restorative, relatively healthy pilsner, lager, or stout? Beer delivery systems themselves provide some fascinating facts. Danish brewer Carlsberg established an “honorary residence” next to its brewery to laud “a man or a woman deserving of esteem from the community by reason of services to science, literature, or art…” Along with his Nobel Prize, physicist Niels Bohr received an invitation to occupy the residence, and lived there for thirty years (1932-62). Better still, the house came with an awesome amenity: a perpetual supply of beer, piped into the home directly from the brewery. Who says science has to be dry?

Beer Towel | UncommonGoods

Beer Towel

5) There are other, longer examples of beer pipelines. The Veltins-Arena, a German football stadium in Gelsenkirchen, boasts a 5 kilometer-long pipeline to supply beer to over 60,000 thirsty spectators at its 100 eateries. And in ale-loving Belgium, the city of Bruges plans a 3 kilometer-long underground pipeline to connect the De Halve Maan brewery to a bottling plant, diverting disruptive trucks from its historic cobblestone streets.

Tankard Stein | UncommonGoods

Tankard Stein

6) Still not convinced that beer should be your beverage of choice? Looking for a divine sign? How about a blessing from a beloved American “Founding Father?” These impulses have encouraged the conviction that Benjamin Franklin once said “beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy.” Healthy, historic, and encouraged by such an august figure—how perfect is that? Unfortunately, this beer drinker t-shirt favorite has little basis in fact. Franklin did write a similar sentiment about wine, musing on the miracle of the Biblical wedding at Cana: “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” (letter to André Morellet, 1779). Apparently, this statement has been paraphrased through the years, and “wine” replaced with “beer”—perhaps by someone in the beer lobby with a love of colonial wit.

Das Horn | UncommonGoods

Das Horn

7) Short of “proof that god wants us to be happy (beer drinkers),” there’s a surprisingly long list of saints who bless beer culture. The roster includes Augustine of Hippo, Luke the Apostle, and Nicholas of Myra. If that last one sounds familiar, it’s the St. Nicholas—aka Santa Claus. Other saints have more specific, local associations, such as Arnold of Soissons, the Belgian patron saint of hop pickers. But if there’s one saint-like figure beloved by brewers, it’s Gambrinus. Likely an amalgamation of a Flemish king and other historic figures, Gambrinus is depicted as a jovial, bearded monarch of malt, often bearing a stein or a keg as attributes. The renowned Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell (originator of pilsner beer) honors Gambrinus with their beers of the same name.

Home Brew Journal | UncommonGoods

Home Brew Journal

8) Back to that Bavarian assertion that beer should only have a four-ingredient recipe. For reasons good and bad, brewers through the centuries have thrown other things into their worts. Early American brewers had to improvise with what they had available, adding pumpkin, spruce tips, and verboten adjuncts like corn and rice to their beer. More recently, the craft beer revival has encouraged experimentation that’s scrapped the Reinheitsgebot—with mixed results. This pursuit of novelty includes ingredients from the questionable to the downright revolting: chili peppers, wasabi, mustard seeds, oysters, pizza crust, and coffee brewed from beans recovered from the droppings of a civet. But the grand prize for off-putting beer ingredients must go to the Oregon brewery that used a yeast strain cultivated from the brewmaster’s own beard. Waiter, there’s beard yeast in my beer…

Gold Leaf Upcycled Beer Bottle Tumbler Set | UncommonGoods

Gold Leaf Upcycled Beer Bottle Tumbler Set

9) Whatever its unusual ingredients, no beer can promise everlasting life, but at least one fictional tale casts a beer as a powerful potion and plot device. In Tim Powers’ fantasy The Drawing of the Dark, an inn in Vienna brews a mystical beer called Herzwesten (“the heart of the west”). Tapped only once every 700 years, the beer is a sort of earthy eau de vie, which ultimately helps revive the Fisher King, spiritual protector of the West against an impending Ottoman invasion. This portrayal of beer as a sort of alchemical avatar is a reflection of how highly prized it is European lore, history, and culture.

Beer Jelly Set | UncommonGoods

Beer Jelly Set

10) Bonus: the brewmaster in The Drawing of the Dark is the aptly-named Gambrinus.

Beer Gifts | UncommonGoods

 

Design

Frank Lloyd Wright For Our Feathered Friends

January 28, 2015

When I saw the sample of our new Prairie Bird Feeder from across the room, I recognized its inspiration instantly: the so-called “Tree of Life” art glass pattern—probably the best-known motif from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo masterpiece, the Darwin D. Martin House.

 

Prairie Bird Feeder

But I suppose I should be able to spot such patterns at 50 paces. After all, I spent nine years as curator for the Martin House Restoration Corporation, helping to preserve, document, and share such designs with the public. I stopped short of getting a Tree of Life tattoo, but you might say that the Prairie style is in my blood.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed in concert with Nature—with a capital N, he insisted—and Drew Kelley’s Wright-inspired bird feeder design follows that organic lead. The cedar feeder is simply stained as Wright might have done, and its miniature roof is gently pitched and cantilevered like the rooflines of the Martin House and other homes of Wright’s Prairie period (c. 1900-1914). Add the art glass motif applied to the side panels, and those birds will be eating in sublime style.

Darwin D. Martin House

Darwin D. Martin House, Wikimedia Commons
But there’s another connection between Kelley’s bird feeder and the Wright house that inspired it. With relatively free reign on his ambitious Buffalo commission, Wright designed not only an interconnected complex of five buildings for the Martin family, but also an impressive complement of furniture, fixtures, art glass (nearly 400 pieces), and custom architectural details. He even designed custom clothesline poles for the kitchen garden and four limestone birdhouses to adorn the roof of the Martins’ conservatory.

Wright’s birdhouses feature multiple chambers in a colony-like configuration favored by purple martins. So, scholars suspect that the birdhouses were, in part, a play on the name of the client (martin / Martin). And like purple martins, the human Martins lived communally, with extended Martin family (Darwin D. Martin’s sister Delta Barton and her family in the smaller house in the complex) and servants living in the same complex. Beyond Buffalo, Wright also designed a custom birdhouse for the Westcott house in Springfield, Ohio.

Darwin Martin Bird Houses

Birdhouses, Darwin D. Martin House. Biff Henrich /IMG_INK, courtesy Martin House Restoration Corporation.
After challenging American architecture in the Prairie period, Wright went on to design some of the most iconic buildings of the 20th century, such as Fallingwater and the Guggenheim museum in New York. His body of work—both realized and conceptual—also includes a mile high skyscraper for Chicago, and a house for Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.

Despite this dazzling portfolio, you can safely say that at least a few of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs were for the birds…and so is our new bird feeder.

The Uncommon Life

B is For Beer, Breweries, Brooklyn, and Beyond!

October 13, 2014

While we’d like to claim that UncommonGoods’ home borough of Brooklyn is the single epicenter of beer culture in the US, that would be a slight to hotspots like Portland, San Diego, and Denver, not to mention lesser-known enclaves like Sussex County, Delaware or Western New York. But along with its important role in the craft beer revival, New York City does have a long history of brewing, longer than some other locales synonymous with craft beer today.

Wise Beer Growler | UncommonGoods

Wise Beer Growler

Breuckelen Brewing History

The first known brewery in the New World was in lower Manhattan, where two thirsty Dutch settlers established a brewhouse in the colony of New Amsterdam in 1612. As the island became more densely settled (and was reborn as New York) brewers started to relocate to the wide-open spaces uptown and across the East River in Brooklyn (“Breuckelen” in New Amsterdam days). Just over 300 years after that brewery beachhead, Brooklyn boasted nearly 50 active breweries, many founded by German-Americans capitalizing on the booming popularity of German-style lagers.

It’s no stretch to say that daily growlers of local beer (named for the grumbling stomachs of hungry workers) helped to build many New York landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge. Schaefer, founded in 1842 on a German lager recipe, built a new state-of-the art facility in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1915, keeping Brooklynites well-supplied for 60 years. Unlike many others, Schaefer survived the dry spell of Prohibition, but succumbed to the corporate forces of big national brewers like Anheuser Busch in the 1970s, throwing in the towel in 1976.

Currier and Ives Image of Brooklyn

‘The City Of Brooklyn’ print by Currier and Ives, 1879

It’s Alive!

Brewing in New York suffered in the ’70s and early ’80s, along with many other aspects of life in the Big Apple. But by 1984, signs of life emerged when former AP correspondent Steve Hindy teamed up with his Park Slope neighbor, Tom Potter, to found Brooklyn Brewery. From humble, DIY beginnings, they led the charge for a Brooklyn beer revival. Today, with an expanding facility in Williamsburg, not far from Schaefer’s former site, Brooklyn Brewery produces an impressive array of beers enjoyed throughout the region and nationwide.

Following Brooklyn Brewery’s success, other breweries have cropped up around the borough, offering more and more variety for beer lovers in Brooklyn and beyond. From the distinctive, genre-defying beers of Sixpoint (Red Hook), to the environmentally-conscious brews of Kelso (Fort Greene), to the sideshow chutzpah of Coney Island Brewing Company, Brooklyn is re-emerging as an East Coast center for craft brewing. In the big picture, there’s even more good news for brews: the Brooklyn revival is just one wave of an American craft beer resurgence. This year marks 3,000 breweries operating in the US—most of them microbreweries or nanobreweries like Brooklyn’s brewers—a level not seen in this country since 1870. Throughout the nation, a century of lost ground has been regained!

Wooden Beer Tote | UncommonGoods

Wooden Beer Tote with Bottle Opener

Beer is Culture

Sixpoint Brewery’s motto, “Beer is Culture” may be the perfect phrase to encompass the role of beer in Brooklyn today. Beer’s role in Brooklyn life isn’t just relegated to the proliferation of craft breweries; there are scores of multiple tap beer pubs, specialty stores like Bierkraft in Park Slope, beer history tours and tastings led by Urban Oyster and others, and numerous spots where you can fill up a growler with a dizzying variety of craft beers from all points on the map. And that’s just one borough of the metropolis where beer has been part of the local culture for over 400 years.

Cheers!

Indulge in some hoppy goodness with the help of our favorite beer gifts, or learn more about the history of brewing by visiting the sources we used for this post: BeerHistory.com, Brooklyn Brewery/History,Schaefer Beer/History, The Buffalo News

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