Whoopee Caps

The fun second life of fedoras.

The fedora hat was created sometime in the late 19th century. Its name comes from the title of the 1882 play Fédora, which starred Sarah Bernhardt. Interestingly, because of Bernhardt the hat was originally popular with women, only later becoming a staple of men’s fashion.

By the early 20th century, a time when basically all adults wore hats, the fedora was thee hat for men. Its popularity lasted up until the middle of the century when it began to fade out (for example President Kennedy famously broke with tradition and tended to not wear hats, unlike his predecessors). But with so many men were wearing so many fedoras, many of these hats took on second lives as hand-me-downs.

Bruised and battered fedoras found a second life as whoopee caps.


As fathers gave their sons their beat up old fedoras, kids would modify them as an expression of their personalities. Old fedoras would be turned inside-out, the brim would be upturned and cut to create interesting patterns. Kids would further customize these creations with pins and other trinkets. These fun repurposed fedoras came to be known as whoopee caps

By 1929, with the increasing popularity of whoopee caps, the Six Jumping Jacks released the song The Whoopee Hat Brigade. By the 1930s manufactured versions became available for sale – for those who didn’t want to go the DIY route. Whoopee caps spread to pop culture with two of the most famous whoopee cap wearers being Goober Pyle from The Andy Griffith Show, and Jughead Jones from Archie comics. Over time Jughead’s hat became so stylized it became more of a crown than a whoopee cap. Thanks to the 2017 Archie TV show Riverdale the Jughead whoopee cap has evolved again taking on more of a knit beanie style.

Added info: the name Fedora is the feminine version of the Russian name Fedor, which is the equivalent of the Greek Theodore, which means “gift of the gods”.

Labyrinths & Mazes

Labyrinths are made for contemplation while mazes are made for confusion.

The terms “labyrinth” and “maze” are used fairly interchangeably but they’re quite different. A labyrinth is a single unicursal path without choices – you keep walking forward and it will lead you out. A maze is the opposite. Mazes are multicursal puzzles filled with choices of where you could go. Mazes are designed to get you lost, labyrinths make it impossible to get lost.

the labyrinth and the Minotaur
Despite being famous for living in a labyrinth, the Minotaur actually lived in a maze.

One way out

Perhaps the most famous labyrinth is that of the Minotaur in Greek legend. The part-man part-bull Minotaur was said to live in a labyrinth designed by Daedalus. While the myth says “labyrinth” and contemporary illustrations showed the Minotaur at the center of a labyrinth, it was actually a maze. Reading the story it was cleverly designed to confuse (and trap) those who entered which is inline with a maze rather than a labyrinth.

the two basic forms of labyrinths
The two basic frameworks for labyrinths: Cretan/Classical and Four-Axis/Medieval.

Typical labyrinths wind back and forth from the outside to the center and then back out again, following a single path. There are twists & turns but no choices, you simply keep walking forward. Labyrinths have two popular frameworks: the Cretan/Classical style and the four-axis/Medieval design. The four-axis design was created during the Middle Ages and was popularized in the cathedral floors of northern France. Chartres Cathedral is the most famous example of a four-axis labyrinth design, a design which has been copied around the world (Chatham Massachusetts has an outdoor copy, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco has one, etc).

Adding to the confusion of the difference between labyrinths and mazes are turf mazes … which are actually labyrinths. In Northern Europe and the British Isles turf mazes are outdoor labyrinths made of short-cropped grass and sometimes stones. Their designs are similar to the ones found in Medieval cathedrals and were also made to be walked.

Walking a labyrinth is a meditative process of quiet introspection.

Walk the path

As to the purpose of labyrinths, there isn’t a single definitive answer. Some say they were easier alternatives than making religious pilgrimages to holy sites. Instead of traveling to a distant land you could pray as you walked the path of a labyrinth close to home. Labyrinths in this context were spiritual paths to God. Some labyrinths were built as entertainment for children. That said while the labyrinth of the Reims Cathedral was designed for spiritual reasons it was removed in 1779 because the priests felt children were having too much fun on the labyrinth during church services. Fishermen of Sweden believed that turf mazes could trap evil spirits, freeing the men to only have good luck on their trips out to sea. The late 20th century had a resurgence in labyrinth popularity which took on an additional New Age spiritual purpose.

Beyond the spiritual, labyrinths can have physical & psychological benefits. Typically found in quiet semi-secluded settings, labyrinths can help calm the mind through mindful meditation. During the pandemic they were a free outdoor resource for people looking to recenter themselves. Walking a labyrinth can trigger the relaxation response which has the benefits of reducing blood pressure and lowering stress levels.

boxwood-hedge maze at the the Governors' Palace at Colonial Williamsburg
A boxwood hedge maze at the the Governors’ Palace at Colonial Williamsburg, VA.

Land of confusion

From the calm mindfulness of labyrinths to the chaos of mazes. Mazes are puzzles. Unlike labyrinths where the correct path is always in front of you, mazes offer many options of alternate directions. Labyrinths are freedom from choices where mazes are nothing but choices (most of which are wrong).

As evidenced in the story of the Minotaur, mazes have existed for a very long time. As labyrinths grew in popularity in the Middle Ages so too did mazes. Even the word “maze” is from the Middle Ages meaning “delusion, bewilderment, confusion of thought”.

Hedge mazes were constructed/grown on European palace grounds as a fun novelty of the rich. The oldest surviving hedge maze in England is the six foot high Hampton Court Palace maze, planted between 1689-1695.

Corn mazes (or “maize mazes” as they are known in Britain, and variations of “maize labyrinths” in most other European languages) started in the early 1990s. The first corn maze was designed by famed maze creator Adrian Fisher and was commissioned by former Disney producer Don Frantz in Annville, Pennsylvania in 1993 (it was “Cornelius, the Cobasaurus”, a 3 acre dinosaur maze). Today farmers use GPS and drones to aid in the creation of corn mazes which generate considerable income. Treinen Farm in Lodi, Wisconsin estimate that they bring in 90% of their income from autumnal agrotourism (the corn maze, pumpkin patch, hayrides, etc).

Mazes have been popular for centuries and are a large part of pop culture.

I was lost but now I am found

The confusion of mazes can be frustrating, but it can also be rewarding. Since the late 19th century mazes have been used in science experiments to study animal psychology and the process of learning, and thereby how they may apply to humans. In 1882 John Lubbock wrote about how various insects could navigate simple mazes. The iconic idea of rats in mazes began with Willard Small who, in 1901, documented his experiments of placing rats in mazes and observing their behavior. Small used the Hampton Court Palace maze as the inspiration for his rat maze.

Modern cities are typically laid out on rectangular grid systems making navigation fairly easy. Older cities are a different story. Older cities have grown more organically and don’t typically follow a structured grid. The Greek town of Mykonos however is a purposeful example of not being designed on a grid as it’s said to have been intentionally laid out to be confusing for invading pirates. They used the confusion of mazes as a defensive tactic.

Artificial Intelligence also owes a debt to mazes. Bringing the the legend of the Minotaur and rats in mazes together, mathematician Claude Shannon created “Theseus”, an electronic mouse designed to solve mazes. In 1950 Shannon constructed a rearrangeable maze wired with circuits. Placing Theseus in the maze the mouse would advance, encounter obstacles, and then relay the information to the computer. The computer in turn would learn about the maze and then tell Theseus which way to go. Theseus was the first artificial learning device in the world and one of the first experiments in artificial intelligence.

Claude Shannon demonstrates Theseus, the maze-solving electronic mouse that laid the foundation for modern artificial intelligence.

On and on

The enduring appeal of labyrinths and mazes is their mystery. The mystery of the self and the mystery of possibility. A maze is a puzzle to solve, in a labyrinth the puzzle to solve is yourself.

Added info: the etymology of the word “clue” is tied (as it were) to the story of the Minotaur. A “clew” was a ball of thread, like the one Ariadne gave to Theseus to help him find his way in the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Over time the spelling and meaning changed to the “clue” we use today, like the clue Ariadne gave to Thesus.

Maze master Adrian Fisher talks mazes.

Claude Shannon demonstrates “Theseus”, the first artificial learning device which set the foundation for modern AI.

Mistakes Happen (Sometimes Intentionally)

Nothing is perfect and we should embrace mistakes and imperfections.

Mistaken Mistakes

Persian carpets (aka Iranian carpets) come in a diversity of designs and sizes, but they frequently contain repeating symmetrical patterns. One alleged feature in handmade Persian carpets is a mistake in the design pattern (not in the construction) included intentionally. This “Persian flaw” serves as a reminder that only Allah is perfect. The flaw would be something small only noticed by the keenest of observers. It’s also been said that the Amish have a similar practice, that they include an intentional flaw (a “humility block”) in their quilts as a reminder that only God is perfect … but it isn’t true.

Lancaster curator Wendell Zercher has quoted Amish quilt makers as saying “… no one has to remind us that we’re not perfect.” As for Persian flaws, most accounts of this idea come from Western sources and is probably an example of orientalism. While both of these are nice stories that probably help to sell imperfect rugs & quilts, we have little to no evidence to support them. If anything, to intentionally make just one mistake out of humility would prove the opposite, bragging that you have the ability to make a perfect creation (but choose not to).

Actual “Mistakes”

There are however some cultures that really do include intentional imperfections in their work. Women in the Punjab region between India & Pakistan create Phulkari shawls of intricate designs. In these designs they sometimes include “mistakes” which are momentary changes in the overall design pattern. These changes are included to mark important events during the creation of the shawl (births, weddings, deaths, etc). Sometimes the symmetrical pattern is disrupted as spiritual protection from the evil eye.

On the left is a phulkari shawl with intentional changes to the pattern. To the right is a Navajo weaving featuring a “spirit line”.

Some Navajo also include imperfections in their weavings for spiritual reasons. The ch’ihónít’i (aka the “spirit line” or the “weaver’s path”) is a single line leading out of the middle of a design to the edge of the weaving. The spirit line is thought to give the weaver’s soul a way to exit the weaving so as to not get trapped in the design.

Embrace Imperfections

Of course if you accept that nothing is perfect then you have no need to add imperfections because everything is imperfect. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi is the Zen view that everything is imperfect, impermanent, vulnerable. Unlike Western design ideas which frequently strive for idealized perfection, wabi-sabi celebrates the imperfections that make everything (and everyone) unique.

Kintsugi repaired ceramics, using gold & lacquer to feature (rather than hide) the imperfections.

Building off of wabi-sabi, kintsugi is the practice of repairing broken pottery with bits of valuable metals & lacquer that, rather than trying to seamlessly hide the repaired cracks, highlights them. Kintsugi honors the history of the object and celebrates its imperfections. Nothing lasts forever and we should recognize the beauty of imperfect vessels.

A crash course on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.

Ugly Fruits & Vegetables

In the West this embrace of the imperfect has recently manifested itself in ugly fruits & vegetables. Imperfect looking produce has traditionally gone unsold and makes up 40% of total food waste. Producers throw away food because they don’t think retailers will want it (it doesn’t meet “quality standards”) and then retail stores throw away the unsold odd looking food that customers won’t buy. This is all despite the fact that the taste and nutritional content of this “ugly” food may be identical to “normal” looking produce.

The European Union declared 2014 the European Year Against Food Waste. The French supermarket chain Intermarché began their “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” marketing campaign that celebrated ugly looking produce, they gave the foods their own section in the store, and sold them at a discount. It proved so successful that other stores & delivery services, such as Imperfect Foods, started to do likewise as consumers began to accept the wabi-wabi nature of produce.

The Intermarché marketing campaign to help reduce food waste was a huge success.

the Clear Craze & Prison Electronics

The design fad that had a practical application in prison.

In the late 1980s a trend for clear products took hold – clear electronics, clear drinks. Clear beverages and clear beauty products were pitched as more “pure” than their traditional counterparts because they were free of artificial colors. Health conscious consumers began to associate clear with clean. There is of course no correlation between clarity and health but the trend for clear beverages took off regardless.

Learning from the failure of New Coke, that you don’t mess with your best selling product, various brands created new clear products (leaving their bestsellers untouched) as an attempt to appeal to underserved demographics. In 1992 Pepsi released Crystal Pepsi which was a clear soda without preservatives or caffeine. In response to this Coca-Cola released Tab Clear which was created solely to sabotage Crystal Pepsi. Tab Clear was marketed as a diet soda which they hoped would confuse people into thinking Crystal Pepsi was a diet soda, which it did. Both clear sodas were retired by 1994 (although Crystal Pepsi has come back from time to time in limited releases).

various clear drinks that became popular (or not)
The Clear Craze gave us a variety of clear drinks – some more popular than others.

In 1993 Gillette released a series of clear antiperspirants. In the same year Coors Brewing Company released the clear alcoholic beverage Zima. Building off of the 1980s popularity of wine coolers, Zima was a new alternative to beer. It was a lemon-lime drink that was produced for a surprisingly long time (until 2008 in the United States), but was more popular in Japan. Part of Zima’s popularity problem in the US had to do with the fact that it was more popular with women than men which (for some consumers) made it seem like a drink for women. This cut out a large part of the potential male customer base.

A 1993 Zima commercial, complete with a peppering of Z’s substituting for S’s.

In 1993 the Miller Brewing Company chose a few American cities for a limited release of Miller Clear. Through intense filtering they removed the color (and by some critics, the flavor) from a lager to make a clear beer that was less heavy than traditional beer and with greater “drinkability.” It never left the limited release stage.

A 1993 Miller Clear commercial demonstrating it’s radical style while proclaiming that it’s “The first regular beer without all the heaviness.”
A collage of clear electronics - the clear craze was more popular in electronics
The Clear Craze was even more popular in electronics.

Electronics also became transparent, allowing you to see the internal workings of the device. The trend for transparent/translucent electronics lasted into the late 1990s, much longer than the craze for transparent beverages.

In 1983 Swatch released the celebrated Jelly Fish model of watch which had a transparent body allowing you to see the gears (a version of which you can still buy today). A variety of brands made clear telephones some of which would flash when a call was coming in. As part of the Play It Loud! series, in 1995 you could buy a clear Nintendo Game Boy (the clear model’s color was called “X-Ray”). The first iMac series, which ran from 1998 to 2003, all featured clear / colored translucent bodies. While clear products were a fun novelty that faded out around the late 1990s they are still very much alive in one particular market: prisons.

Clear Prison Electronics

Behind bars transparent goods allow prison security to easily inspect for contraband. Depending on the prison system there are different rules & requirements for goods in prison. Some rules are to aid in the search for contraband (such as clear plastic) while other requirements are to prevent objects from being turned into weapons (such as using silicon instead of hard plastic). Prison music players & TVs frequently have a lower maximum volume so as to not annoy one’s neighbors, forcing the listener to be very close to the speaker. An alternative is that some players have the speakers removed altogether and only provide a headphone jack (to be used with clear headphones).

Prison electronics has continued the Clear Craze, but for practical reasons rather than stylish ones.

While the cassette was a popular music format in the 1980s, and has seen a resurgence in recent years, it never completely went away. Cassettes have been in steady use in prisons because they’re harder to turn into weapons than CDs and clear cassettes in particular can be quickly inspected for contraband. Thanks to the US’s prison population (the largest and highest per-capita in the world, something America is definitely #1 at) they were able to keep the cassette industry alive long after it fell out of favor with the mainstream public. Even with the introduction of mp3 players into prisons, cassettes are still popular as they are easier to share/trade than digital files.

Bob Barker and Keefe Group are just two examples of companies who specialize in clear products intended for correctional facilities.


You can still find transparent/translucent products today (in and out of prisons). Coca-Cola Clear is a clear version of Coke (but with additional lemon flavoring) introduced to Japan in 2018. You can still find different video game consoles and/or controllers with special clear/translucent editions. Swatch still makes several different clear watches. While clear beer never happened, and Zima hasn’t really come back strong, the hard seltzer craze of 2019 has introduced a plethora of profitable clear alternatives to beer.

In 2024 Zima is still available in Japan.

Added info: If you’re interested in owning second-hand clear prison electronics (for the novelty and certainly not for their quality), you can find various options on eBay. Here’s a selection of clear prison televisions. Urban Outfitters has also gotten in the game of selling clear electronics that were originally designed for prison, such as this cassette player.

Mat Taylor of Techmoan has a fantastic introduction to prison technology.

The SNL commercial for Crystal Gravy was a parody of the Crystal Pepsi commercial.


Humans have been making devices to shield their eyes from the sun for thousands of years. Today one company dominates the market.

Living around the Arctic where the bright sunlight reflects off the ice & snow, the indigenous peoples of North America & Greenland developed the earliest sunglasses. These 4,000 year old proto-sunglasses were carved from a variety of materials (ivory, antler, wood, etc.) and featured very thin slits allowing the wearer to see while keeping their eyes protected by blocking excessive sunlight. This idea has been recreated many times in a variety of styles from the 1930s to the present.

The traditional “sunglasses” of the Arctic have been reinvented many times over the years.

The Venetians, who had been making clear corrective eyeglasses since the 13th century, were among the first to produce sunglasses with glass. In the 18th century the glass makers of Murano produced green-tinted eyeglasses (as well as what resemble handheld mirrors but with transparent green glass) through which wealthy Venetians could look across the water while protecting their eyes from reflected light. Green glasses were also thought to help with eye strain caused by long hours of reading.

Venetians used green glass to protect their eyes while soldiers in the American Civil War used a variety of colors.

By the 19th century it was not uncommon for soldiers, on both sides of the American Civil War, to wear colored spectacles of blue/gray/green to protect their eyes while marching in the sun. But sunglasses were still primarily utilitarian. They didn’t become a fashionable part of mainstream culture until the 20th century.

20th Century Sunglasses

In the early 20th century Sam Foster had a plastics company that primarily sold women’s hair accessories, but as the trend in women’s hair changed to shorter hair styles (negating the need for so many hair accessories), he had to find a new product to sell. In 1929 he began selling inexpensive plastic sunglasses to beachgoers for 10 cents a pair on the Atlantic City boardwalk. This was the beginning of the Foster Grant eyewear company. Foster Grant sunglasses became the shades of Hollywood celebrities which helped make sunglasses not just about protecting your eyes but also about fashion. Sunglasses could now be about style as well as function.

In 1929 Bausch & Lomb, who were already making optical equipment for the military, began work for the U.S. Army Air Corps developing sunglasses that wouldn’t fog up and would reduce glare for pilots. This gave us the iconic “Ray-Ban Aviator” sunglasses. Aviator sunglasses were also the start of Ray-Ban eyewear company, which began as the civilian division of Bausch & Lomb. Ray-Ban would go on to make another iconic model of sunglasses, the Wayfarer, in 1956.

(Side fact: Roy Orbison fell into his wayfarer signature style accidentally while on tour with the Beatles in 1963. He forgot his regular glasses on the plane and had to wear his wayfarer sunglasses on stage, and thus was born his iconic look.)

Sunglasses became about function & fashion in the 20th century. Also, Tom Cruise movies helped popularize two of Ray-Ban’s most famous models.


Today the sunglasses market is dominated by Luxottica, an Italian eyewear juggernaut which is the largest eyewear company in the world. They’re the company actually making the sunglasses of luxury brands such as Chanel, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Versace, etc. Luxottica’s dominance is due in large part to their vertical integration control over the eyewear industry. They own major distribution retail stores such as LensCrafters, Target Optical, Pearle Vision, and Sunglass Hut. They own major eyeglass brands including Oakley and Ray-Ban, and they manufacture the eyewear for all of the above. They even own EyeMed, the second largest vision insurance company in America. You could go from getting a vision prescription, to selecting a pair of glasses, to buying them at a retail store and pay Luxottica at every step of the way.

Luxottica’s control over the market is why eyewear prices have gone up and not down. The proliferation of brands & stores competing for sales isn’t as competitive as it seems since Luxottica is behind many of them. In Luxottica owned stores 89% of the products available are made by Luxottica. Most of these glasses are the same quality, just different styles. Because of Luxottica, frames that cost maybe $15 to produce can be sold for hundreds of dollars. As of 2019 Luxottica controlled around 40% of the eyewear market.

60 Minutes’s 2012 report on eyeglass juggernaut Luxottica.

Added info: Beyond just blocking excessive bright light, good sunglasses block most ultraviolet (UV) light from damaging your eyes. Darker glasses don’t necessarily block more UV light so it’s worth buying reputable sunglasses that have been engineered & certified to offer UV protection. It’s better to not wear any sunglasses at all than ones that don’t block UV light because your pupils will widen in the shade of junk sunglasses and in so doing allow in more UV rays.

Sign of the Cross

As one of the oldest ideograms in the world, the cross represented a lot of things long before it represented Christianity. Now it represents all of that and more.

Before the cross was associated with Christianity, it had a long history with ancient cultures around the world. The symmetrical intersection of two lines is a pretty simple idea, plus it’s easy to draw/carve on almost any surface. As such it’s understandable that different people at different times have each created their own cross symbols – an early example of multiple discovery, or maybe the collective unconscious.

While designs & purposes vary from culture to culture there are reoccurring themes. For pre-Columbian cultures of North America the four points of a cross are frequently used to represent the four cardinal directions, the four seasons, the four winds, and/or the four primary forces of nature. The Greek cross corresponded to the four fixed signs of the zodiac (Leo, Taurus, Scorpio, Aquarius). In a similar interest with the number four, European alchemists would later use the cross as one of the symbols for the four platonic elements.

In the Chinese language the cross is a sign for “perfection” as well as the character for “ten”. Interestingly, in Roman numerals a cross turned 45 degrees (an X) is also the sign for ten, but in Chinese the X sign was an early symbol for the number “five”. The X symbol in Egyptian hieroglyphics meant divide, count, and break into parts. Speaking of math, the cross as mathematical “plus” sign came much later around the 14th century and the “x” for multiplication came around the 17th century.

An assortment of pre-Christian cross designs from around the world.

If we expand our definition of a cross and make some simple alterations we get even more results. The Inca have the Chakana, a stepped cross symbol representing different levels of existence. Turned 45 degrees the stepped X symbol Aban is the Ghanaian Adinka symbol for “castle” as well as “strength”.

A cross in a circle ⊕, such as the Solar Cross (wheel cross, Odin’s cross), has been used by people for thousands of years around the world (and recently by white supremacists). It can represent the sun, a solar deity (such as the weather/solar god Baal of the Middle East or Shamash in Babylon), the wheel of a sun gods’ chariot, in China it represented thunder/power, it’s the mon of the Shimazu clan in Japan, etc. A cross amulet for a sun god made of four triangle shapes (like the Cross Pattée ᛭) can be seen in the 9th century BCE stela of the Assyrian King Shamshi-Adad V. A cross with slight bars on the ends is the ancient Chinese sign for a wū ☩, a shaman or sorcerer. Add a rounded shape to the top of a cross and you have the Egyptian hieroglyph Ankh ☥. Finally, one of the most famous (and later infamous) altered crosses is the swastika which has a very extensive history by cultures around the world long before its use in the 20th century.

Christianity Before The Cross

The cross gained a new meaning after the crucifixion of Jesus … but not immediately afterwards. To start, it’s unclear what kind of cross Jesus was crucified on. It could have been a pole, it could have been shaped like a capital “T”, or it could have been the lower case “†” shape we are familiar with. Regardless of cross shape, as a way to avoid persecution, early Christians used a variety of other symbols to secretly represent Jesus before they used the cross. The Ichthys (the “Jesus fish”), the peacock, the pelican, the dove, an anchor, as well as the letters Alpha & Omega were all early Christian images containing hidden meaning symbolizing Jesus.

It wasn’t until 300 years after Jesus that the cross became a widespread symbol of Christianity. Constantine, the 4th century Roman emperor, not only stopped the Roman persecution of Christians but also became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Supposedly he had a vision of a symbol in the sky followed by Jesus telling him to make that symbol the symbol of God, that it would protect him from his enemies. From this Constantine ordered all of the shields and banners to feature this new design.

Four early Christian symbols used in secret to avoid persecution.

Exactly what this symbol supposedly was however is debated. Some say it was a cross but others say it was the staurogram. The staurogram is a ligature combining the Greek letters “T” and “P” to form ⳨ which was an abbreviated way of writing “stauros” or “cross” – it also looks a bit like a person crucified on a cross. Still another possibility was the symbol Chi Rho, a ligature of the Greek letters “X” and “P” forming ⳩, a shortening of the title “Christ”. Also, the early Christian interest in ligatures goes one further with the IX monogram ligature, which is an overlapping of the Greek letters “I” and “X” as a shortened form of the name Jesus Christ.

Ultimately, whatever sign Constantine supposedly saw, the Chi Rho became the symbol used by the Roman military. As the Roman empire spread it took Christianity and the symbols of Christianity along with it. It’s thought that over time the assorted early Christian symbols morphed/simplified into the cross we associate with Christianity today.

Cross Diversity

Like the diversity of pre-Christian crosses, we now find ourselves with a plethora of Christian cross designs – lots of styles for lots of reasons. Early church theology made use of the cross as a teaching tool which helped generate alternate designs. The four points of a cross could now represent the four evangelists. The Papal Cross has three horizontal bars instead of the traditional one, symbolizing the Pope’s rank. The Triumphal Cross / Globus cruciger, a cross placed at the top of an orb, is used to show Christ’s reign over the world (which is a popular symbol in art).

As Christianity spread to new regions the church (and the cross) would adapt to the local cultures. Early Christians took the Egyptian Ankh, changed the teardrop-shaped loop to a circle, and it became the Crux Ansata or “cross with a handle”. The Celtic Cross was created in the Gaelic speaking areas of the British Isles as a combination of the local Druidic solar/lunar beliefs (the circle) with the Christian cross. Similar to many Celtic crosses, the Ethiopian Cross also features a latticework design but is even more elaborate. The Ethiopians use the woven pattern to represent everlasting life.

European heraldry also generated a variety of new crosses especially during the medieval Crusades. The Jerusalem Cross is one cross with four other smaller crosses in the four quadrants. It was the coat of arms for the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the Holy Land was conquered by the crusaders in the 13th century. The five crosses can represent the five wounds of Christ, or the four evangelists & Jesus, etc. This cross variant found its way into the heraldry of the crusaders as well as the current day national flag of Georgia. Christian cross variants were incorporated into European family crests, military groups, and national symbols. Today a cross can be found in at least 29 national flags not including flags with the southern cross constellation or all of the countries (other than the United Kingdom) whose flag features the Union Jack (which is a design of three crosses overlapping).

Added info: The ritual of making the sign of the cross with one’s hand goes back to the 2nd century treatise Apostolic Tradition.

Also, while similar, a cross and a crucifix are different. A crucifix has the body of Jesus on a cross and became a symbol of the Catholic and Orthodox churches starting around the 6th century. A cross is the object Jesus was crucified on but without Christ’s body on it. Protestant religions tend to use empty cross designs for their symbols.

Twelve cross designs from around the world used to represent different things.

Irish “Pub In A Box”

As part of a Guinness marketing effort in the early 1990s, thousands of Irish pubs around the world have been built using standardized design templates.

Recognized around the world, the Irish pub is one of the most well-known Irish cultural exports – and where there’s an Irish pub there’s usually Guinness. In the 1980s Guinness began to track the causal relationship between new Irish pubs and regional increases in Guinness beer sales. As new pubs opened, Guinness sales went up. If Guinness could help create more Irish pubs then they could also increase their own revenue.

Ahead of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Guinness sales representatives traveled around Italy meeting with potential Italian business partners with the goal of opening Irish pubs. Their pitch was built around revenue generation and how Irish pubs have a more profitable beverage-to-food ratio than most other bars. From January to June of 1990 Italy opened 58 Irish pubs, welcoming Irish soccer fans and drinkers of all kinds. However, the critical factor to revenue generation was that these pubs needed to appear authentic – enter the “pub in a box”. 

Pub in a Box

Successful Irish pubs outside of Ireland have the look & feel of the real thing. As part of their expansion effort Guinness assembled a team to analyze, quantify, & document the seemingly ineffable essence of the Irish pub. The Irish Pub Concept helped determine the critical success factors to operating an Irish pub. Chief among these factors is visual authenticity.

Founded in 1990, the Irish Pub Company of Dublin was one of the first companies to offer “authentic” Irish pubs for export. Instead of doing all of the work yourself they’ll take your dimensions and design, manufacture, and ship all of the necessary materials to you. Do you want the rural Irish pub style or the Victorian? Maybe you want the general “Celtic” style. They offer a variety of prepackaged pub types that come complete with all the knickknacks for the walls. To date they have designed & shipped over 2,000 pubs to more than 50 countries.

Fadó in Chicago, designed by the Irish Pub Company in their “Celtic” style.
Mandy’s Apothecary in Moscow, designed by the Irish Pub Company in their “Shop” style.

The Irish Pub Co. isn’t alone. Ól Irish Pubs and GGD Global also offer to design & ship you a “pub in a box”. This Disney-ized packaging of Irish culture is not without criticism. For one it raises questions of authenticity. It’s true these are pubs that have been designed & manufactured in Ireland. However, it’s difficult to claim authenticity when your pub has a fake Irish country store as part of the decor. Instead of organically collecting meaningful mementos for your bar, these superficial design packages ship all the rusty farm equipment, dusty old bottles, and framed photos of strangers you need to give the illusion of authenticity. Why take years cultivating a unique local flavor when you can just throw up a portrait of Michael Collins or the Molly Maguires?

An additional criticism is of Guinness for helping to bring these “pub in a box” bars into existence. Established Irish bars were expected to keep serving Guinness beer while the Guinness company was busy creating additional local competition. Beginning in the early ‘90s some bars boycotted and stopped serving Guinness. McGillin’s Olde Ale House of Philadelphia still does not serve Guinness as a result of the “pub in a box” fallout with Guinness.

The Wild Rover in Barcelona features framed photos of random Irish people, used purely as decoration.

Better than nothing

To many customers the ambiance that these cookie-cutter bars generate is all that matters – the question of authenticity never crosses their minds. The theatrical set dressing used by these bars creates a fun environment. Even for those who recognize the dubious credibility of these establishments, some feel to have a “pub in a box” Irish bar is better than having none at all.

As America has helped transform St. Patrick’s Day into an all-out extravaganza, Irish pubs (authentic or otherwise) are increasingly patronized not only by the diaspora but by people of all backgrounds. The pub offers people of all stripes an environment that is hard to find anywhere else. The long tradition of the pub serving as a gathering place for the local community can still be carried out by these “pub in a box” bars … just don’t scrutinize the bric-à-brac too closely.

Added info: If you’re interested in standardized / templated restaurant experiences, you may also be interested in learning about how the Thai government’s culinary diplomacy has successfully spread Thai restaurants around the world.

the 1954 Eldorado Bullet Wheel

Sammy Davis Jr. lost his eye on the steering wheel of a 1954 Cadillac Eldorado.

The Cadillac Eldorado (named for the mythical tribal chief / city of gold) began production in 1953. It was decorated with aeronautically inspired fins and conical “bullets”, as was the style at the time. The “Dagmar bumper” was the chrome front bumper that had two decorative bullet projections, named for the buxom American actress Dagmar. Included in this ‘50s bullet styling was a hard bullet shape at the center of the steering wheel, nicknamed “the bullet wheel”. The car had no seat belts.

The Eldorado’s “Dagmar bumper”, named for the buxom figure of American actress Dagmar
The “bullet wheel” of the 1954 Cadillac Eldorado had a hard “bullet” at the center of the steering wheel, similar to the styling found elsewhere on the car.

Sammy Davis Jr.’s career as a song & dance man started when he was a child in the 1930s. In the early 1950s his career was on the rise and he was performing in the clubs of Las Vegas while also working on projects down in LA. On November 18, 1954 Davis and his valet Charles Head left the New Frontier Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas in Davis’s Eldorado to drive through the night to Studio City in LA the next morning.

Helen Boss was a widower from Akron, Ohio that liked to live as a snowbird, traveling to LA in the winters to avoid the cold of Ohio. She was traveling down Route 66, not far from San Bernadino around 7:00am on November 19th, when she missed her turn. Instead of turning the car around she simply put it in reverse and went backwards to the fork in the road where she went wrong. At the same time Sammy Davis Jr. was driving the same road and before he realized the car in his lane was driving backwards, slammed directly into the back of Boss’s car.

The Accident

The resulting accident sent people flying. Charles Head, who had been sleeping in the backseat, was launched into the front seat where he broke his jaw. Helen and her friend broke bones when they were sent into the backseat of their car. The V-8 engine of Davis’s car was pushed backwards into the dashboard as Davis was sent forward, his head colliding with the steering wheel. He hit his head hard enough that he dislocated his left eye on the bullet portion of the wheel.

The accident was a front-page story around the country. This brush with death, combined with a visit by a rabbi chaplain, led Davis to convert to Judaism. In the hospital Davis’s damaged eye was removed by doctors. He wore an eye patch for the next few months. His debut album, Starring Sammy Davis Jr., was released the following year and the album cover features Davis wearing an eye patch. Eventually he switched to a glass eye. Later in life Davis would say “I’m a one-eyed Negro who’s Jewish.”

Davis initially wore an eye patch but eventually switched to a glass eye.

Form Follows Function

In the words of architect Louis Sullivan, “Form follows function”. The bullet wheel was a costly example that the style of the steering wheel (its form) was less important than its purpose (its function). Looking cool was less important than being useful & safe. After Davis’s accident the Eldorado’s bullet wheel was discontinued and replaced with a safer design.

John Snow’s Cholera Map

Through his medical investigation, Dr. John Snow helped solve how cholera is spread and created a legendary data visualization in the process.

With the Industrial Revolution, London’s population grew enormously. People from the countryside moved to the city for work and for a different life. London became the largest city on Earth. Between 1750 and 1850 it’s estimated that London’s population doubled, from around 1 million to around 2.3 million people. What grew with it was a civil engineering crisis in how to handle so many people in such close quarters. In short: what to do with the filth? By 1850 modern plumbing had not been extended to all parts of the city and specifically the Soho area. People had cesspools in their basements where they would empty their waste. In other places the sewage was emptied into the River Thames, which was also a source of drinking water.

London’s booming population growth in the early 19th century led to filthy conditions.

Modern germ theory states that microscopic organisms are responsible for the spread of disease. Before we understood this people believed in the miasma theory which claimed that disease was spread by “bad air”. For centuries people believed that epidemics were being spread by dirty air, they had no knowledge of microorganisms. It’s not entirely misguided. Things that smell bad can, in fact, have disease. So while “bad air” may be a warning sign that disease is present, it’s not necessarily the air itself that causes sickness. In mid-19th century London miasma theory was the prevailing scientific theory but some scientists were beginning to doubt its validity.

Dr. John Snow challenged the prevailing miasma theory of disease through research and data.

You Know Something John Snow

Cholera is spread through tainted water or food that has come into contact with fecal matter. Between 1846 to 1860 the world was in a cholera pandemic, and in 1854 there was an outbreak in the Soho district of London. Nobody knew exactly how cholera spread but Dr. John Snow had a theory that it wasn’t miasma. A few years earlier in 1849 he published On the Mode of Communication of Cholera where he laid out a theory that a germ (that had yet to be identified) was responsible for cholera. He believed that cholera was spread by “…the emptying of sewers into the drinking water of the community.” The 1854 outbreak in Soho gave him a chance to prove his theory.

In the first 7 days of the outbreak 10% of the neighborhood died. Like a medical detective Snow began investigating the addresses of the deaths. He spoke to residents of the area, he asked where they got their water from, he took down notes, he looked at the sources of water for that part of London. The thing that was truly groundbreaking was that he visualized his data. He drew a map of the area, he noted the locations of water sources, and he added black bars at the addresses where deaths had occurred.

A detail of Snow’s 1854 cholera map. The Broad Street pump is at the center as a circle, and the deaths per address are the stacked black bars. You can view the full map here.

Unlike a data table, a data visualization has the ability to quickly & easily show trends. With a glance you can see patterns or outliers. You can tell a visual story with numbers. As Snow’s visualization grew he could see that cholera deaths clustered by one water source in particular: the Broad Street pump. He was able to show that other addresses in the area, who had their own private water sources (such as a local workhouse and a brewery) were mostly spared. The workhouse had 18 deaths but all of those individuals had separately gone to drink water from the Broad Street pump. This helped disprove the miasma theory because all of the workers should have gotten sick by the same “bad air”, but they didn’t. He took his findings to the local authorities. They found that the Broad Street pump was near a cholera infected home whose cesspool was leaking into the surrounding soil and infecting the water supply. Authorities removed the handle to the pump and deaths decreased.

Snow’s cholera map helped create modern epidemiology. COVID-19 visualizations are directly influenced by Snow’s work.
Today the pump still stands (without the handle) and sits outside of a pub named for Snow. Inside they pub has a few framed items that tell some of this story.

the Visualization of Data

To say that John Snow’s cholera map is legendary is not an exaggeration. Anyone with a passing knowledge of data visualization knows about his map. Modern epidemiologists still talk about his work. Snow’s methodical approach to data collection & data visualization influenced public policy and helped London prepare for the next cholera outbreak. It helped disprove miasma theory and advanced the modern germ theory we still use today. His cholera map helped make John Snow the father of modern epidemiology.

You can see the evolution of Snow’s work in today’s COVID-19 reporting. Contact tracing, the mapping of infections, accounting for local public policies regarding masks, tracking superspreader events – it’s all influenced by Snow’s 1854 cholera map.

Added info: Today there is a replica of the water pump where the old one stood, but Broad Street is now called Broadwick Street. The pump sits just outside of the John Snow pub.

Playing off of the lead character Jon Snow’s name, a White Walker from Game of Thrones stood outside of the John Snow pub in Soho in 2014. Photo via reddit.

Googie Architecture

1950s American suburban sprawl created an eye-catching architectural movement.

The American post-war economy of the 1940s boomed. With this increasing wave of affluence many Americans joined the middle class and subsequently moved to the suburbs. If you were living in the suburbs then you had to drive everywhere and as you flew down the road in your new car business owners knew they had to stand-out to be noticed. Enter, Googie Architecture.

If you threw some rocket ships, neon lights, trapezoids, and boomerangs into a 1950s blender, you’d get Googie Architecture. Googie is mid-century modern but with a lot of flair. The name comes from a now demolished Hollywood coffee shop called Googies. In 1949 famed architect John Lautner designed the Googies shop with striated lines, odd angles, and in big neon letters “GOOGIES” with eyes in the O’s. Soon other businesses created their own energetic designs, and from the late 1940s through the 1960s it was an architectural arms race for customers’ attention & dollars.

The Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport

Today many Googie buildings are gone, replaced as design trends have changed. The Googie style McDonalds restaurants of the ‘50s with giant golden arches & cantilevered roofs, were replaced by the dull rectangular beige shingle-roofed McDonalds of the ‘70s (which were also replaced).

Still, some excellent Googie buildings live on. The Seattle Space Needle, the Theme Building at LAX, the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign, and more still stand as testaments to a mid-century space-age era where function followed form.

An added bonus: Wildwood, New Jersey is full of Googie architecture, but there it’s referred to as Doo-Wop architecture. Also with the return of American soldiers from the Pacific, 1950s America produced another kitschy architectural style known as Tiki which celebrated an exaggerated/fanciful version of South Seas Polynesian culture.

In Wildwood, NJ, Googie is called Doo-Wop architecture