Muffler Men

The roadside giants of the 1960s used to lure in customers.

Muffler men are the giant fiberglass statues found along American roadsides. For 10 years starting in 1962 the International Fiberglass company of California turned out hundreds of figures in a variety of styles. The first was a 20ft Paul Bunyan holding an axe for the Paul Bunyan Cafe on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona but later figures included cowboys, Indians, astronauts, golfers, vikings, etc. While their heights ranged from 14-25ft tall they all tended to have a similar basic pose (because the tooling to create new poses was expensive). The basic pose was to have the arms extended to hold something (such as a car muffler, hence the nickname).

While these three muffler men are different in style the basic design is the same. The Paul Bunyan on the right most likely had an axe but now holds an American flag.

These roadside giants were sold as attention getters. Similar to Googie architecture, muffler men were built to catch the attention of drivers as they sped down the road. An American Oil gas station in Las Vegas installed a Paul Bunyan in the early 1960s and reported that their sales doubled after installing the giant. This was the beginning of an “invasion” of giants around America. The craze lasted for about a decade until the price of materials increased and the novelty wore off in the early 1970s. As for the price, a new character originally cost between $1,800 to $2,800 depending on the complexity, but today these giant pieces of Americana can fetch between $15,000 to $20,000 or more.

The ice cream man and the American Indian are basically the same design but with a few modifications. The Mortimer Snerd muffler man on the right is the same design but with a different head.

Added info: you can still find muffler men around America. This map from RoadsideAmerica shows you where to find them and what kinds of statues they are. You can also find more examples of these giants on Roadside Architecture as well as American Giants.

Auld Lang Syne

The nostalgic song toasting times gone by that has spread around the world.

Auld Lang Syne started as a traditional Scottish folk song. The lyrics were written down, added to, and made famous by 18th century Scottish national poet Robert Burns in 1788. In the late 18th century Burns was touring Scotland collecting folk songs & poetry when he recorded Auld Lang Syne and submitted it to The Scots Musical Museum.

Burns contributed hundreds of songs to the Museum whose intention was to preserve the fading Scots language & culture which was becoming increasingly influenced by English culture. Auld Lang Syne is written partially in English but also partially in Scots (which is a Germanic derived Scottish language, different than “Scottish” which is a Celtic Gaelic derived language). The lyrics were originally set to a few different melodies but in 1799 they were paired with the melody we know today.

Written down and added to by Robert Burns, Auld Lang Syne has become the unofficial theme song of New Year’s.

What is it and why New Year’s Eve?

Because the lyrics are partially in Scots most people don’t know exactly what the song means. The title “auld lang syne” in Scots translates to “old long since” or more loosely as “for the sake of the good old days gone by”. The song is a toast to friendship and to the fond memories of days gone by.

Given the song’s spirit of looking back while looking forward it became a standard sung every Hogmanay (the Scottish New Year’s Eve). Its association with New Year’s in North America was because of Guy Lombardo. On New Year’s Eve 1928 Guy Lombardo and The Royal Canadians big band hosted a concert at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City and at the stroke of midnight they played Auld Lang Syne. For the next 47 years they played NYE concerts and every midnight they played Auld Lang Syne, earning Lombardo the nickname of “Mr. New Year’s Eve”. When Dick Clark created Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve from Times Square in 1972 he too played Lombardo’s version of Auld Lang Syne at midnight. Since then the song has become synonymous with New Year’s.

Guy Lombardo’s classic 1947 rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

Around the World

While the song is internationally recognized as the unofficial theme song of New Year’s Eve the melody has been used in other ways. The Korean national anthem Aegukga originally used the melody of Auld Lang Syne until 1948 when it was replaced with an original melody. It was also the melody of the national anthem of the Maldives, Qaumii salaam, until 1972 when it too was replaced with an original melody.

The Dutch song Wij houden van Oranje (which translates to “We Love Orange”) is a national soccer chant set to the melody of Auld Lang Syne. Also in Japan the melody is used for for the graduation ceremony song Hotaru no Hikari, the melody is used to mark the end of the day in department stores, etc.

QI discusses the history of Auld Lang Syne

Toasting the Past, Looking Forward

Like the Roman god Janus, Auld Lang Syne is a seasonal reminder to look back at the days gone by but also look ahead to the future. It’s a nostalgic song that toasts the people with us today as well as the people with us in spirit.

Poinsettia

The Mexican plant that has become a standard part of Christmas (and isn’t poisonous).

The poinsettia comes from Mexico & Guatemala and, in its untamed form, grows to be fairly gangly and around 10ft tall. Over the centuries it’s been selectively bred to be about 2ft tall with very dense foliage. The most well-known characteristic of the poinsettia is of course the bright red leaves along the top of the plant. These red leaves are not flowers but are the bracts of the poinsettia – specialized leaves that are different than the rest of the plant (the actual flowers, aka. the cyathia, are the small buds at the center of the red bracts). These special leaves are green until late autumn when, in the cooler shorter days, they turn red.

Poinsett to Poinsettia

The plant had already been known & used by the Aztecs for dyes and medicine but it came to the attention of the Western world through US Minister to Mexico (and amateur botanist) Joel Roberts Poinsett. Specimens had already been collected around 1803 by German scientific superstar Alexander von Humboldt, but it was re-discovered by Poinsett who introduced the plant to the US.

In 1828 Poinsett sent plants & seeds to Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia (contrary to internet rumoring, there is no definitive proof that he sent poinsettia plants home to his native South Carolina). In 1835 Scottish horticulturalist and active member of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society Robert Buist named the plant the Euphorbia Poinsettia in honor of Poinsett. Buist also helped introduce the poinsettia to Europe.

Named for US Minister to Mexico Joel Roberts Poinsett, the poinsettia has been a standard part of Christmas for over a century.

Paul Ecke Ranch

Over the next century the poinsettia was cultivated into different varieties – shorter, taller, different colors, different patterns. The Paul Ecke Ranch of California have cultivated and sold poinsettias since the early 20th century. Having successfully produced cultivars which were more beautiful, more compact, and sturdier than other varieties, the Ecke family began to create and then dominate the market.

For decades they would send free poinsettias from November through December to a variety of media outlets. Ecke Rach poinsettias appeared on the Tonight Show, Bob Hope Christmas specials, the Dinah Shore Show, in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes & Gardens – all of which furthered the popularity and demand for poinsettias at Christmas. Today the Ecke Ranch (who were sold to the Agribio Group in 2012) is the largest poinsettia producer in the world with about a 50% share of the global market and around 70% of the domestic US market.

That Plant is … Safe

Poinsettias are not poisonous. While you or your pets probably shouldn’t eat the leaves of a poinsettia, you wouldn’t be struck dead if you did. The myth that they are deadly most likely goes back to 1919 when a child in Hawaii died of poisoning which was wrongly attributed to the poinsettia leaf. Research has shown that you would have to eat hundreds of leaves to produce mild irritation or vomiting at most. Given that the leaves are unpalatable and very bitter it’s unlikely you would eat enough to suffer the consequences.

the Nirvana Fallacy

Sometimes an imperfect solution is better than waiting for a perfect one.

The nirvana fallacy (aka the “perfect solution fallacy”) is when you compare an imperfect option to an idealized perfect option. Basically it’s when you dislike/reject an option just because it isn’t perfect. Rather than weighing the merits of realistic (albeit flawed) options, you pit realistic options up against unrealistic perfect options.

Something is better than nothing

In the world of COVID we see this with wearing masks. When you board a plane or enter a restaurant you have to wear a mask, you can remove your mask to eat or drink, but then you have to put your mask back on. This leads some to think “Well why even bother wearing the mask if we’re just going to take it off?”, but this is fallacious. The perfect solution would be to stay at home or to wear your mask all the time, but this is unrealistic. Even though temporarily removing your mask is flawed, to wear your mask at all is still better than never wearing a mask. The imperfect solution is better than not even attempting a solution just because it isn’t perfect (which, spoiler, the perfect solution neither exists nor will it ever exist).

The nirvana fallacy frequently finds its way into public policy debates. When some policy doesn’t fully solve a problem its political opponents will attack it for its flaws. However, no realistic solution will ever go far enough to satisfy all critics. Good governance is choosing the best possible available solution knowing that all options will be flawed.

When weighing your options don’t reject an option just because it isn’t perfect — all options will be imperfect. By holding out for the perfect option you can do more harm than good. Doing something is frequently better than doing nothing at all.

“Perfect is the enemy of good.” – Voltaire

Christmas Ghost Stories

Stemming from ancient pagan traditions, it used to be customary to tell ghost stories at Christmas.

In the northern hemisphere, Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. Knowing that Jesus was not born in December, the date of December 25th was chosen for multiple reasons but not least of which was to usurp various pagan winter solstice holidays. Before people gathered together for Christmas they would gather together around fires (such as the Yule log) for various pagan winter holidays on the longest nights of the year during which they would tell stories. Similar to Halloween it was thought that in these long nights the veil between this world and the next was thin allowing spirits to pass back and forth. As such many people told ghost stories of revenants back from the dead, spirits, and other supernatural creatures.

As people adopted Christianity, winter ghost stories went from being a pagan tradition to a Christmas tradition. By the 17th century the Lord and Protector of England Oliver Cromwell tried to eliminate Christmas ghost stories because of their pagan origins. Cromwell also outlawed a host of other Christmas traditions including caroling and feasts (and that’s not even the worst of Cromwell’s legacy). These traditions eventually came back post-Cromwell but by then some were seen as old-fashioned.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol became the most famous Christmas ghost story of all time.

A Christmas Carol

Christmas ghost stories achieved a new kind of popularity in the Victorian Era through the Industrial Revolution. As the oral tradition of Christmas ghost stories moved to print, old traditional stories as well as new Christmas stories saw a surge in popularity through magazines, novellas, and book collections. Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol took the tradition to a new level.

A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. It’s easier to see it as a ghost story if you remove the Christmas trappings by placing it in another time of year. Unlike the traditional Christmas ghost stories Dickens reinvented the genre by including moral lessons of forgiveness, good deeds, generosity, etc. His ghosts served as a catalyst towards redemption which was very different than the ghosts of other stories which were primarily used for a good scare. Soon the redemptive, somewhat saccharine, aspects of A Christmas Carol were adopted by other authors and the scary ghost portions of Christmas stories slowly fell by the wayside.

Today we rarely associate scary ghost stories with Christmas. Similar to how Santa Claus and Krampus are a seasonal version of good cop/bad cop, we’ve mostly relegated our scary stories to Halloween while telling our hopeful happy stories at Christmas. Still, if you were to put aside the modern concept of Christmas, this dark cold time of year is the perfect time to gather around the fire and tell scary stories in the darkness.

Added info: take a trip through time and read some collections of Victorian Christmas ghost stories.

The Caganer

The Catalonian tradition of including a man pooping in the Christmas nativity for good luck.

In the Catalonia region of Spain, in the northeast corner of the country, there is a Christmas tradition of including the statue of a man defecating in the nativity scene. The caganer (aka “the pooper”) is typically a man wearing the traditional Catalan clothes of a red cap, white shirt, and black trousers crouched down pooping.

While Jesus, Mary, & Joseph are at the center of the nativity scene the caganer is usually off to the side. He can also be moved around each day in a little game of hide and seek. The purpose of the caganer is that he brings good luck by fertilizing not just the land but also the future of the family who owns the nativity. It also shows that everyone is truly equal, that everyone poops. Caganer statues are available in shops around Barcelona and aren’t just limited to the traditional style. You can find caganers modeled after world leaders, celebrities, movie characters, the pope, Disney princesses, and more.

Today you can find a wide variety of caganers, from world leaders to comic book characters.

Learn more about the caganer tradition.
Caga Tió, the “poop log” is fed and later beaten to produce gifts for children.

Caga Tió

The caganer isn’t the only Catalonian Christmas pooping tradition. The Tió de Nadal (aka the “Caga Tió” aka the “poop log”) is a wooden log frequently with a smiling face painted on the one end and little legs to prop it up. The tradition is that children will leave little bits of food for the tió during Advent and on Christmas Eve or Day they beat the log with sticks while singing. This ceremony induces the log, which is partially covered by a blanket, to poop little gifts for children (which have been hidden under the blanket). Once it has served its purposes the log is burned in the fire or thrown out.

Added info: The Catalonians have several traditions associated with pooping. One expression sometimes said before eating is “Menja bé, caga fort!” or “Eat well, poop hard!”

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, gave them their own section in the store, and sold them at a discount. It proved so successful that other stores began their own campaigns as customers began to accept the wabi-wabi nature of produce.

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

the First Thanksgiving Menu

Lacking key ingredients, the menu at the first Thanksgiving of 1621 was a bit different than the traditional turkey dinner of today.

In the fall of 1621 the English Pilgrims and the Wampanoag came together in Massachusetts for, what has subsequently become a much mythologized, 3 day harvest festival. The pilgrims had a lot to be thankful for — that they were still alive following the deaths of half their fellow pilgrims the previous winter, that they had their supplies fortified by the Wampanoag, and that they had completed a successful summer growing season. What they ate as they gave thanks is debatable.

Definitely on the Menu

One food that was definitely served was venison. Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag, had 5 deer brought to the event. Another meat on the menu was “wild fowl”, but exactly what kind of birds these were is unknown. It’s possible that there was turkey at the first Thanksgiving but more likely it was goose or duck (or a combination). Other regional bird options at the time would have been swan and passenger pigeon.

Also definitely present was corn. The Wampanoag, who used the Three Sisters method of farming, had taught the pilgrims how to grow corn. As the pilgrims had grown a successful crop of Flint corn (aka “Indian corn”) it was cooked into a porridge, a bread, and/or with beans.

Maybe on the Menu

Given that the Plymouth Colony was by the water it’s very likely that seafood was also served. Eels, clams, muscles, cod, bass, and/or lobsters were very likely a part of the meal. It’s worth noting though that, unlike today, lobster was considered a food of last resort.

There were certainly vegetables & fruits on the menu but which ones were never specified (other than corn). Chestnuts, walnuts, beans, onions, carrots, cabbage, pumpkins, and various squashes were all grown in the area. Blueberries, plums, grapes, and raspberries were also grown in the area and could have been present. While cranberries might have been served cranberry sauce definitely was not since the colonists lacked the necessary sugar (and that cranberry sauce didn’t exist for another 50 years).

Not on the Menu

Even though pumpkins may have been present, pumpkin pie definitely was not. The pilgrims had neither the butter nor the flour necessary to make pumpkin pie – they didn’t even have an oven in 1621. Something pumpkin pie-esque that may have been prepared is a spiced pumpkin soup/custard cooked directly inside a pumpkin which was roasted on hot ashes.

There was no stuffing because, again, the colonists lacked the necessary flour. There were also no potatoes (mashed or otherwise). Potatoes came from South America and, while they had made their way to Europe by the late 16th century via the Spanish, they had yet to make their way to New England. There also weren’t any forks on the table since they too hadn’t made their way to North America yet (but on the upside nobody present had an overbite).

A historical reenactment of how to cook some of the foods present at the first Thanksgiving.

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 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 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).

In 1993 the 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), and was more popular in Japan than it ever was in the US. 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.”

Besides beverages, 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 searching for contraband (such as clear plastic), 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).

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.

Today

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.

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.

Hookworm

The parasite responsible for giving American southerners a bad reputation.

For centuries American southerners were maligned as lazy, slow, shiftless, dumb. Southerners had “the germ of laziness.” There was just something different about southerners that made them less-than their northern counterparts. As it turned out there was something different about them but it had nothing to do with genetics or social conditioning. That something was hookworm.

Hookworm

Hookworm, and specifically the New World hookworm Necator americanus, is a parasitic worm that arrived in America by way of the slave trade in the 17th century. In the larval stage hookworms live in wet warm shady soil where they wait to encounter a human. A person walking barefoot outdoors may make contact with a hookworm at which point it can penetrate the skin and crawl into the foot. From there it travels through the circulatory system to the lungs where it triggers a dry cough. The human host then unknowingly coughs up the worm only to swallow it down to the small intestine, which is where the worm wanted to be the entire time. The worm then lives around 1-2 years (or longer) attached to the wall of the intestine, sucking blood, and where a female worm can lay up to 30,000 eggs per day. Eventually these fertilized eggs are pooped out in a poorly built outhouse or in some bushes, contaminating the soil to start the process again. It’s disgusting.

Because hookworms thrive in warm humid environments they do particularly well in the southern climate of the United States. The area from southeastern Texas to West Virginia became nicknamed the “hookworm belt”. For poor southerners who couldn’t afford shoes and didn’t have indoor plumbing it was almost impossible to avoid hookworm. By 1910 it’s believed that around 40% of the people living in the south were infected with millions of worms.

Putting their gross lifecycle aside, the problem with hookworms is that they steal your blood. Alone one worm won’t do much damage, but getting infested by multiple worms on a continual basis over years/decades has a severely damaging cumulative effect. By consuming your blood hookworms can cause an iron deficiency. People with hookworms become tired, lose weight, and have little strength to do anything. Pregnant women are at risk for anemia and a greater chance of dying in child birth. Infected children can suffer irreversible developmental problems including stunted growth and intellectual disabilities. All of this matches the unfair characterization of southerners as slow rednecks.

A nurse brings hookworm medicine to a rural Alabama family, 1939.
A doctor and a nurse examine for hookworm in an Alabama school, 1939.

The cumulative effect

In 1902 zoologist Charles W. Stiles discovered that hookworms were endemic to the southern US. In 1909 John D. Rockefeller got involved by funding the creation of the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease. They campaigned across the south to educate, test, and help treat hookworm. Students in small country schoolhouses would submit stool samples to their teachers to be tested – some schools even required students be screened for hookworm. People would go to health clinics on the weekends to learn more. An estimated 7.5 million southerners had hookworms. While the Rockefeller Commission helped treat the problem what greatly reduced hookworm was the urbanization of the south enabling more people to afford shoes and sanitary indoor plumbing.

The barefoot Texas boy on the right has hookworm, 1939.

Beyond the health consequences the socioeconomic impact of hookworm is also destructive. The US regions with hookworm had lower rates of literacy and school attendance than areas without it. A 1926 study of Alabama children showed that the more worms a child had the lower their IQ. Even today children with chronic hookworm face up to 40% lower future wage earnings when they grow up. General productivity is measurably lower as a result of hookworm. The southern regions that were worst infected with hookworms saw the greatest income expansion after treatment, but unfortunately centuries of infection had a cumulative effect. Eight of the ten poorest US states are still southern states.

Hookworm in the US is typically thought of as a problem of the past but it is still very much a problem of the present. Given the severe income inequality in the US, hookworm is thriving in regions living below the poverty line. Hookworm lives in, and reinforces, poverty and while 85% of the world lives on less than $30 a day 10% of the world is currently living in extreme poverty. Around the world an estimated 477 million people are currently living with hookworms inside them.