Sunglasses

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 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.

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 to develop 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.

Luxottica

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.

Pineapples as Status Symbols

Because of their rarity pineapples became European decorative elements and status symbols.

The pineapple is native to South America but across thousands of years of cultivation it spread to Central America as well. The first European to encounter a pineapple was Columbus in 1493 who brought some back to the Spanish royal court (along with tobacco, gold, chili peppers, and the people he kidnapped). Europeans had never tasted anything like pineapple before and, because of their scarcity, to own one quickly became an exotic status symbol of the ultra wealthy.

Pineapples were in high demand but there was low supply so enterprising individuals set out to grow pineapples in Europe. The tropical conditions pineapples require make growing them in Europe a challenge. It took until the 17th century for farmers in the Netherlands to succeed, followed by the English in the 18th century. Mathew Decker even memorialized his pineapple growing achievement by commissioning a painting in 1720. These efforts produced more, albeit still not many, pineapples for the European & American markets. A single pineapple could go for around $8,000 in today’s dollars. A cheaper alternative was to rent a pineapple which people would do to show off at parties and such. These pineapples would be rented from person to person until the final person paid to eat it, unless it had rotted by then. A further down-market option was pineapple jam which could be shipped from Central/South America.

Because of their popularity, pineapples became a decorative element in a host of artistic mediums.

Pineapple Art

The Caribbean custom of placing pineapples at the front of a friendly home as a welcome to strangers, combined with years of being displayed at happy European social gatherings, led pineapples to becoming international symbols of hospitality. This combined with their association with wealth & high society helped make the pineapple a popular artistic motif. From this we get carved pineapple embellishments as finials on staircases, at the tops of columns, on New England gateposts, above front doors, as fountains, as furniture accents, Christopher Wren placed gilded copper pineapples on St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the centerpiece of the Dunmore Pineapple folly in Scotland is a massive pineapple, etc.

Added info: any association of pineapple with Hawaii comes after the fruit was introduced there by the Spanish in the 18th century. Pineapple is not native to Hawaii.

the Stanley Cup(s)

Depending on how you count there is 1 or 3 Stanley Cups.

The Stanley Cup, the trophy awarded to the annual champions of the NHL playoffs, was first awarded in 1893. It was commissioned by the Governor General of Canada Lord Frederick Stanley (hence the name Stanley Cup). He wanted there to be an annual award/trophy for the best amateur Canadian hockey team. The trophy chosen was a silver rose bowl attached to a single base ring. Over the years the trophy grew to a multi-tiered base inscribed with the latest winners of the Cup, now awarded to the best professional team in North America. Unlike most major sports which have used different trophies over the years, the NHL uses the same Stanley Cup every year … except when they haven’t.

Presentation Cup

By the 1960s the Stanley Cup (also known as the “The Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup”, or the “Challenge Cup”) had become increasingly battered and damaged after years of being manhandled by players and staff. A clone of the Cup, complete with identical bumps & bruises, was created in secret and replaced the original Stanley Cup in 1970. This new sturdier cup is, for all intents and purposes, the Stanley Cup. It was used for at least three seasons without the players or the public being aware that the original Stanley Cup had been retired. This new Cup is called the Stanley Cup but is also known as the “Presentation Cup” as it’s the Cup presented to the championship winning team.

Upon being retired the original/real Stanley Cup was moved to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto where visitors can see it on display. When the Presentation Cup isn’t on the road it too can be seen in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The public interest to see both on display however created a dilemma: what do you show when the Presentation Cup is on the road? Enter the third Stanley Cup.

The original Stanley Cup (left) and the Presentation Cup (right) on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

the Replica Cup

Fans who travel to the Hockey Hall of Fame want to see the original Stanley Cup as well as the Presentation Cup (the new Stanley Cup). To ensure that the two are always present, even when the Presentation Cup is on the road, a third Stanley Cup (the “Replica Cup”) was created. Starting in 1993 the Replica Cup has been displayed in the Hall of Fame whenever the Presentation Cup can’t be. The Replica Cup is identical to the Presentation Cup but with a few engraving mistakes corrected.

So depending on how you count there is one Stanley Cup, or there are three.

Added info: The Stanley Cup(s) are not owned by the NHL. Despite being the crowing achievement of an NHL season, the Cup is actually governed by a trust established by Lord Stanley. At any given time there are two trustees who have “absolute power” over the Stanley Cup.

Salamanders & Fire

Contrary to folklore salamanders are not born in fire, they aren’t fireproof, nor do they have any affinity for fire.

For thousands of years salamanders have been associated with fire. Aristotle believed that salamanders were so cold they could extinguish fire (a claim later repeated – with skepticism at least – by Pliny the Elder). This claim was later specifically applied to extinguishing the fires of blacksmith forges. The Talmud claimed that smearing the blood of a salamander on yourself could make you immune to the dangers of fire. Leonardo Da Vinci said that salamanders got their sustenance from fire which was also how they repaired their skin. Related to their skin, the Persians claimed that asbestos was the fur of salamanders (Persians would also clean cloth made of asbestos by throwing it into the fire, bringing it back out white again). Alchemists and occultists also associated the element of fire with salamanders. But why?

A collection of salamanders & fire seen over the centuries.

Throw another log on the fire

Being amphibians, most salamanders prefer cool damp places and have no interest in fire. The connection between fire and salamanders is most likely because salamanders hide & hibernate in logs (among other places). People would accidentally use these logs as firewood and, as the salamanders found their habitat suddenly on fire, would scurry from the flames. Not knowing the creatures were hiding in the logs in the first place people interpreted this sudden appearance of salamanders as though they were born in the fire, that they were fireproof, or that they had some special connection to fire, etc. In actuality the salamanders were just running for their lives and most definitely had no special protection from fire.

Symbols

Because of this association with fire, salamanders were sometimes an emblem for blacksmiths. European heraldry also featured a variety of salamanders in fire – sometimes looking like actual salamanders, sometimes looking more like dog lizard hybrids. Heraldic salamanders were used to represent a wide range of attributes from sacrifice, to courage, to resilience, to faith.

Fast-forward to modern day and the association with fire lives on in heating companies and heating unit names. It also lives on in literature such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 where the firemen have the symbol of a salamander on their uniforms.

Buried Pirate Treasure

Treasure Island is largely responsible for why we think pirates buried treasure, but they didn’t.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 tale of pirate adventure, Treasure Island, has done more to shape our idea of colonial era pirates than anything else. How we think pirates dressed, how they behaved, to how they spoke (although some of that was English actor Robert Newton’s exaggerated West Country accent in the 1950 film adaptation – which is the basis of most “pirate speak”), Treasure Island basically defined the pirate genre. It also popularized the fictional idea of treasure maps and buried treasure.

You can’t bury perishables

Pirates didn’t bury treasure for a host of reasons. For one, if they were lucky enough to raid a ship loaded with money or jewels they turned around and spent it – it didn’t stick around long enough to be buried. A bigger reason however was that gold, silver, & jewels were a small fraction of what pirates typically got to steal. Most looted booty was normal trade goods (sugar, alcohol, dyes, tobacco, cloth, timber, food, etc). The seas were the highway system for moving all manner of commercial merchandise and most of what pirates stole would rot if left to sit around for extended periods of time (burying these goods being even worse). It was more typical that pirates would sell their loot in port towns and, again, immediately squander the money they earned. Most pirates never accumulated enough wealth to even have the option of burying it somewhere.

The buried pirate treasure of Captain Kidd is the one exception to the rule that pirates never buried treasure.

Ultimately it’s a myth that pirates buried treasure … but with one famous exception. In June of 1699 Captain William Kidd, while sailing to New York where he knew he was a wanted man, took the preventative measure of burying some pirated treasure on Gardiners Island off the East end of Long Island. He hoped to use this treasure as leverage in his future trial, which failed as he was eventually convicted of piracy and executed.

Added info: You can find a copy of Treasure Island in lots of places but it’s also available for free as an audio book on archive.org.

American Lobsters: From Trash to Treasure

North America lobsters were originally a poor person’s food.

While an expensive luxury today, the American lobster (aka Homarus americanus, the Maine lobster, Canadian lobster, northern lobster, etc) was once a food of last resort. Native American tribes of the northeastern coastal regions would use lobsters as fertilizer, fish bait, and when necessary food. European colonists also viewed lobsters as inferior last-resort bottom feeders. These “cockroaches of the sea” became relegated to food for the poor, for servants, prisoners, slaves, and sometimes even feed for livestock.

The turnaround for lobsters began in the 19th century with two new industries: canning and railroads. As canning became a viable way to preserve & ship food lobster meat became a cheap export from the New England area. Lobster meat was sent via rail to locations all around North America. This was followed by tourists visiting New England along some of the same rail lines. These tourists were able to finally taste fresh lobster meat instead of canned and lobster’s popularity grew. By the 1880s demand for lobster (especially fresh lobster which must be shipped alive) combined with a decrease in supply, lead to higher prices. This helped establish lobster as the expensive delicacy we think of today.

Expensive?

Like any commodity, lobster is subject to price fluctuations. While lobster typically maintains its cultural status as an expensive delicacy, this doesn’t always reflect the real cost. For example, the over abundance of lobsters around 2009 sent the wholesale price of lobster from around $6 a pound to half that – but it would have been hard to notice. Restaurants don’t typically reduce their prices because an ingredient has suddenly become cheaper.

However, when lobster is less expensive it does appear in unexpected places. Around 2012 Gastropubs included lobster in dishes such as macaroni & cheese, fast food chains included lobster on their menus, Walgreens in downtown Boston even sold live lobsters – all things you don’t usually see when a commodity is expensive. Today, even in years when lobster is abundant and the cost is low, it is still thought of as a luxury item.

Thugs

The term “thug” comes from India and centuries of murderous highway thieves.

The word “thug”, used in the common parlance to describe “a violent or brutish criminal or bully”, comes from the medieval highway men of India. Thugs were organized professional criminals. Posing as innocent travelers, thugs would gain the confidence of wealthy people traveling the same roads, sometimes traveling with them for a few days. Then, when the time was right, the thugs would strangle their victims, rob them, and dispose of their bodies. While thugs used a variety of methods for murder, their preferred method of strangulation may have been from a loophole in 16th century Mughal law which specified that a murderer would only be sentenced to death if he/she had shed blood.

Thugs about to strangle an unsuspecting victim.

Colonial Thug Life

Over the centuries thugs murdered & robbed tens of thousands of people. They gained international infamy with the British colonization of India. As the British encountered the thugs, stories of these scandalous criminals made it back home to England. The thug problem was even used in part to justify the colonization of India as the British would be “helping to save the natives from themselves”.

In the early 19th century the British began to break-up, prosecute, and eradicate the thugs. The Thuggee and Dacoity Department was formed in 1830 as a division of the East India Company to address the thug problem – hunting down thousands of thugs. By the late 19th century thugs had largely disappeared from daily life.

The “Cult of Kali”

In the west, thugs were often portrayed as members of a cult to the goddess Kali, murdering and robbing in her honor. It was even said that strangulation in particular was part of a divine mandate. In recent years however there has been increasing doubt as to the legitimacy of these religious claims. Modern thinking is that it’s unlikely these criminals were members of some wide-spread murderous death cult and more likely that the British were using these ideas to further their own agenda.

In portraying what were in actuality informal networks of criminals as a horrifying death cult the British could denigrate, delegitimize, and criminalize indigenous peoples. Over time “thug” became a term used to dismissively denigrate people of all kinds, but especially people of color. By the 1990s, in a reclaiming of the word, “thug” became a fixture of hip-hop especially through Tupac Shakur (who had “thug life” tattooed across his stomach). Today the word “thug” appears in either the lyrics or the artist name, of over 4,800 songs.

Added info: This association with Kali was the inspiration for the thuggee cult members in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Also, Kali is often portrayed with her tongue out, which served as inspiration for the Rolling Stones logo. Further, in Sympathy For The Devil, the lyric “And I laid traps for the troubadors / Who get killed before they reach Bombay” is believed to be a reference to thugs murdering Tibetan musicians on the road to Bombay.

Inoculation Hair Styles & Early Adopters

Early adopters of Parisian fashion helped make smallpox inoculations popular.

Inoculation is when you purposefully give someone an “antigenic substance” (a substance that triggers an immune response) to generate antibodies and help develop immunity to a particular disease. Around 1500 CE the Chinese developed a practice of inhaling a powder made from ground up smallpox crusts. By ingesting a less harmful version of the disease their immune systems could learn to fight the real thing. The Ethiopians and the Turks had a similar but different practice. They would make a small incision in the arm and place a piece of smallpox pustule inside, with the same goal of triggering an immune response and hopefully developing immunity.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu of England saw the Turkish method while her husband was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. She brought the technique to Western Europe and had her daughter inoculated in 1721. Despite evidence of success, westerners were skeptical of smallpox inoculations. When the Turkish procedure was done incorrectly the patient could get full-blown smallpox which has a fatality rate around 30% (or higher in children). Inoculations were an especially difficult sell in France, until smallpox killed King Louis XV and 10 of his courtiers in 1774.

Elaborate gravity defying pouf hair styles were all the rage in 18th century France.

Inoculation Hairdo

After the death of Louis XV, a nineteen year old Louis XVI was suddenly very motivated to get inoculated (additionally encouraged by his wife, Marie Antoinette, who had previously been inoculated back home in Austria). Soon others in the French royal court chose to follow suit. The royal court getting inoculated helped make the procedure more acceptable but what really helped was Mary Antoinette’s hair.

To celebrate the king’s inoculation Antoinette had a special gravity-defying pouf hair style constructed, the pouf à l’inoculation. The inoculation pouf featured a rising sun representing the king, an olive tree representing peace, and the rod of asclepius representing medicine. Soon other women wanted the same trendy hair style as the queen, and as the pouf à l’inoculation became popular around Paris so too did smallpox inoculations. An inoculation is a fairly invisible procedure but a spectacular hair style was a walking billboard celebrating that you had been successfully inoculated.

Early Adopters

In his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations, Dr. Everett Rogers theorizes how and why innovative ideas/products are adopted (or rejected). After the initial stage where innovators introduce a new product, the early adopters evaluate if it’s worthwhile. Sometimes called “lighthouse customers”, early adopters serve as messengers & guides, communicating the values of a new product to others. While members of each stage of the innovation adoption lifecycle require their own marketing strategy, a key to the early majority adopting a new product is the approval of the early adopters. Once early adopters give the thumbs up, the early majority accept the new product and success is all but inevitable.

The work of Dr. Everett Rogers theorized how new ideas & products are adopted (or rejected) by society. Without the approval of Early Adopters the majority will never accept it.

The queen’s hairstyle influenced the royal courtiers, who influenced the bourgeoisie, who in turn influenced the population at large. Smallpox inoculation was an unknown, scary, and seemingly counter-intuitive procedure, but it was made fashionable (desirable even) through early adopters celebrating it. By making medicine a cool status symbol people everywhere wanted it.

Added info: While it’s fairly well known that Mary Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake”, and that “cake” in this case meant a form of bread, she was still unfairly vilified. Overall she seems to have been a decent queen (as monarchs go), but she did live a wildly extravagant lifestyle which certainly made her seem detached from the struggles of the common people.

the Shamrock Shake & Uncle O’Grimacey

The McDonalds Shamrock Shake helped pay for the first Ronald McDonald house.

In 1970 McDonalds introduced their lemon/lime flavored green Saint Patrick’s Day Shake. It eventually changed flavors and names to become the mint flavored, and alliteratively titled, Shamrock Shake. Like the autumnal artificial scarcity of pumpkin spice, the Shamrock Shake is only available around Saint Patrick’s Day in the February through March timeframe (except in Philadelphia where it has two seasons).

McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, Mayor Frank Rizzo, members of the Eagles organization, Fred Hill & his daughter all attended the opening of the first Ronald McDonald House, October 15, 1974.

Philadelphia’s two seasons of Shamrock Shakes goes back to the role it played in creating the first ever Ronald McDonald House. In 1969 Kim Hill, daughter of Philadelphia Eagle Fred Hill, was diagnosed with leukemia. By 1973 the Hills and members of the Eagles organization started the Eagles Fly for Leukemia charity which helped pay for the new oncology wing at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

After seeing parents camped out in the hallways and waiting rooms while their children received treatments, the charity went a step further in 1974 and purchased an old seven-bedroom house at 4032 Spruce St. not far from the hospital. The house would be a place for visiting families to stay free of charge while their children received treatment – a “home away from home”. To help pay for this the Eagles partnered with the local McDonalds restaurants asking them to donate money from their next promotional food item, which just happened to be the Shamrock Shake. The Eagles asked them to donate 25 cents per shake but McDonalds executives asked if they could have the naming rights to the house if they donated all of the proceeds. Eagles general manager Jimmy Murray said “… for that money, they could name it the Hamburglar House.” From this, the first ever Ronald McDonald House was established in Philadelphia in 1974. Today there are more than 375 Ronald McDonald House programs around the world which, at what would have been more than 2.5 million overnight stays in hotels, save families around $930 million each year.

Uncle O’Grimacey

As positive as the Shamrock Shake’s impact has been, there have been some missteps. To help promote the Shamrock Shake, McDonalds introduced the new mascot character Uncle O’Grimacey in 1975. The Irish uncle of the purple mascot Grimace, Uncle O’Grimacey (complete in his kelly green hat, shamrock-patterned vest, and a shillelagh) would travel from Ireland each year bringing Shamrock Shakes to McDonaldland. Uncle O’Grimacey was quietly phased out of McDonalds marketing after a few years due in part to an alleged incident in Philadelphia in 1978 where the person portraying him made statements in support of the IRA and that British soldiers were better dead than alive.

Casual racism isn’t just relegated to the distant past however. In 2017 McDonalds ran an ad promoting the Shamrock Shake. Unfortunately they had a man wearing a tartan Tam o’ shanter playing the shake like a set of bagpipes (which would be Scottish) while standing in-front of Stonehenge (which is in England). McDonalds stopped the ad and apologized saying they are “… strongly supportive of Ireland and respectful of its culture”. Begosh and Begorrah.

Uncle O’Grimacey bringing Shamrock Shakes to McDonaldland.

Acquired Overbites

We have slight overbites because we use forks & knifes.

Before people ate with forks & knifes they used their hands. In the absence of utensils people would have to clench and rip their food with their teeth. While crude, the result of all this pulling meant that people’s top and bottom rows of teeth lined up edge-to-edge. The introduction of utensils changed that.

The use of a fork & knife meant that a person no longer had to use their teeth to pull at their food, they could cut their food on their plate first. As a result anyone who used utensils (including us today) developed an overbite. Most of us have slight overbites where our top teeth hang out a bit in front of our bottom teeth, which comes from using utensils.

This effect can be traced across time, across cultures, and across social classes. Aristocratic classes could usually afford knives & forks before the peasantry, so they developed overbites before anyone else. For example, the more affluent members of 18th century Western Europe developed overbites before the people who couldn’t afford silverware. Even more interesting the overbite took longer to develop in the American colonies, who were poorer than their countrymen back home in Europe.

In China the overbite developed as far back as 800 CE. Instead of knives & forks the Chinese aristocracy used chopsticks, but to eat meat with chopsticks the meat had to be pre-chopped as part of the meal preparation. As a result they didn’t have to pull at their food either, and developed overbites centuries before Europeans.

QI discusses the development of overbites, and as it pertains to Richard III