If you took a bath today, thank a pig



Seriously. If you took a bath today (and we all hope you did), thank a pig. Actually, you should thank a pig farmer. Sort of.


Okay, not a pig, and not a pig farmer. You should thank the state of Wisconsin and its city Sheboygan, and the foundry it once had that was bought by John Michael Kohler and his partner Charles Silberzahn in 1873, who founded a company called Kohler & Silberzahn, which made farm equipment, including big tubs used as watering troughs and hog scalders.



I guess we also have to be thankful for the fire that burned down that original foundry seven years later because Kohler added an enameling shop when he rebuilt. Now he could cover his cast-iron troughs with a protective coat of enamel.


Three years later in 1883, Kohler came up with the idea of selling an enameled hog scalder as a bathtub. In exchange, he supposedly received a cow and 14 chickens. I’m curious about what gave Kohler the idea. He must have been on farms and seen hogs immersed in those tubs. Did one of the hogs remind him of someone he knew? History would be a lot more interesting if we had the answers to questions like that.



From that point on, Kohler focused on enameled bathroom fixtures. In 1911 the company introduced a built-in, one-piece tub, and the rest of us have been awash in their products since then.


I had no intention of writing about bathtubs today. Although I manage to get in hot water on a regular basis, I hardly ever take a bath. I prefer showers.


I started out today planning to write something about the word “bubbler,” Wisconsin talk for drinking fountain. It seems that Kohler is responsible for that, too; he put the capital “B” in the word when he trademarked it in 1889. Now it’s used generically, mostly in Wisconsin but also in Rhode Island, eastern Connecticut, southeastern Massachusetts, and Australia. In my experience, I’ve never heard anyone pronounce it with the capital, but then I’ve never been to Sheboygan.


In spite of its usage in both the U.S. and Australia, neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor the Cambridge Dictionary Online has an entry for “bubbler.” Merriam Webster Online and the Random House Dictionary (dictionary.com) give one of its meanings as “a drinking fountain that spouts water.”



If you go to Kohler’s website, you’ll find at least 53 different bathtubs: rectangular, circular, key-hole shaped, kidney-shaped, free-standing, sunken, and jet-streamed. They still make the Bubbler, too. Americans love their tubs and drinking fountain; go to Facebook and you’ll find that bathtub and Bubbler have their own Facebook pages. I also discovered that Pig scalder is on Facebook. In one of instances that proves that history sometimes moves backwards, it mentions that in New Zealand some farmers use their old cast-iron bathtubs for hog scalding.



Posters courtesy of http://blog.kohler.com/2011/05/18/the-one-piece-bath-turns-100/

History and the Will Cuppy cure


Today’s Special is a guest post by Courtenay Bluebird


History did not always bore me.  To put my stomach off history for an entire decade, the following three synchronous events had to coalesce:  three required undergraduate history credits; an unusually hot summer; and a professor who specialized in reading for four hours straight from a textbook that was written in a soda-flat monotone.


Et voilà!  I despised history as a solo subject for many years.  That aversion could be quite problematic when you’re a journalist and an MFA candidate.


If plain history were mixed with a little bit of, say, literary theory, I was fine.  I could stand the flat taste of historical fact if you mixed in the sociology of clothing.


Postmodern theory (Thanks a lot art school MFA!) leans heavily on the ideas of multiple histories  (history is a story; a story is a flawed construct) and historicism (no history is absolute; history is a combination of different disciplines).  Both of these items also sat well on my stomach, as they were light on the history and heavy on the theory.


History as a standalone subject, though, induced an intellectual queasiness in me that I tried to keep to myself.  When an entire subject area makes you dyspeptic and you are trying to teach college students to be open minded— you have a real problem.


I didn’t know how to fix my history issue.  I didn’t even know how to try to fix it.  Worse, even, I didn’t care to repair my history problem.


Do you know who healed my rift with history?


Oh, you’ll never guess, so let me tell you.


My mail carrier, a bibliophile of intense and diverse tastes, introduced me to a catalogue filled with drool-worthy books—  Bas Bleu.  (Bas Bleu is the French term for a bluestocking, a 19th century word for an aristocratic, educated lady.  The catalogue’s motto is “Champion for the small little book….” Don’t you love it already? )


My pip of a mail carrier introduced me to Bas Bleu and Bas Bleu gave me a formal posthumous introduction to Will Cuppy, a once popular and fascinating writer who specialized in humor and facts.


Facts.  Historical facts.  In fact, merely considering reading history made my stomach twitch.  I thumbed-down the page and waited for the sensation to pass.  It took three weeks.


After a little dithering, I ordered Cuppy’s back-in-print The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody.  I fell in love with history for history’s sake again.  Not historicism.  Not history as a by-product of other interests.  Hardcore, unrepentant history.


Will Cuppy gave me back my own birthright— a curiosity about what happened where, to whom, and how the pattern of history repeats, indefinitely, like a crazy quilt made by your colorblind aunt.


Cuppy’s intense abilities come down to one incredibly difficult literary trick.


He could take any subject— world civilization, natural sciences, home economics — and with an astonishing sleight-of-hand— reduce it to its essential elements and make it pithy.  His writing style leans into this brevity, but do not be deceived— the research behind his tight sentences could, and did, take years at a stretch.


Most of his books were out of print for a few decades with the exception of Decline.  Like many writers I love, Cuppy went through a brief period after his death where people forgot how wonderful he was, where editors forgot how Cuppy gave their readers the gift of knowledge with ease, where literary reviewers forgot that writers could convey history without that self-congratulatory grandiosity that causes emotional vertigo in the average reader.


After reading Cuppy, no bland recitation of facts and figures could possibly evoke the great forces that make lives and countries collide and collude.  Cuppy, Bas Bleu, and my mail carrier, gave history back to me so sweetly and simply that really I can hardly believe my luck.  I never thought I’d love history again.


But here is my heart on the sleeve of my t-shirt— I adore history.  And here I am, late at night, relishing that soon I will lie down on my bed in a small pool of light to read an exquisite history of Sri Lanka.   I’ve read it six times before.  I’ll read it six times again.  It’s true— history repeats itself, cover to cover and back again.


Would you like to know more about Will Cuppy?  A well-written overview can be found on Wikipedia here!  In fact, Cuppy is so quotable, he has his on Wiki Quote page over here.


Want some more great news?  His writing is so popular again, according to the lovely Yearstricken, that my favorite Cuppy book The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody is on backorder at Amazon.  Bas Bleu is still my go-to for new reprints of beloved favorites.  I highly recommend that you bebop to their website here.


And, finally, do you want to read my favorite history of modern Sri Lanka, in brief?  It’s gorgeous.  Michael Ondaatje’s  Running in the Family is so fine I give it as gift to new writers all the time.


 Courtenay Bluebird is a professional writer and   photographer, and a sort-of artist.  As she is currently writing about herself in the third person, she would like to tell you this is the first time she has shown her drawings to any sort of public.

As a writer, she has penned features and columns for major newspapers and magazines.   Her poetry, essays, and fiction have been published in a variety of respected journals.  As a photographer, she has hung four two-person shows.
Bluebird Blvd. is her first real grown-up blog.  And she’s awfully happy to be a guest writer on Year-Struck today.

Sentimental swoons


Sentimentality is one of the nicest pejoratives you’ll ever meet. Maude, as I call her, cries easily, regularly rams into icebergs of emotions that sink her unsinkable optimism, sending her to the bottom of the ocean, but not before she can remember her happy childhood when every flower smelled of heaven and housed a butterfly, and house-trained robins fluttered above her head, leading her safely home where she lived happily ever after. She always manages to escape or resurrect from her watery grave and dry off her emotions, just in time to plan her next voyage across the sentimental seas. She calls every sailing vessel the Titanic, closes her eyes or changes the channel when the bad parts of life come on, and always thinks in pink. Even her sunglasses are rose-colored.


The Titanic (photo from Google)


However, Maude wasn’t always a pejorative. She was the darling of philosophy and literature in the 18th century; she looked more attractive when she was younger. During much of the Age of Enlightenment, Sentiment had to eat in the kitchen, while Reason sat at the formal dining table entertaining scientists, philosophers, and writers. After a while, Sentiment got tired of eating the leftovers and seduced the master of the house. When she sat down at the formal table and poured her wine, the conversation turned to discussions about subjectivity, introspection and her role in developing a moral sense. Sharing the table was one thing, but now Reason, long used to hunting alone, had to take Sentiment with him when he went out looking for moral truth. Reason always fancied himself the better shot.


Not-so-stern-looking Laurence Sterne, author of The Sentimental Journey, a sentimental novel. (Photo from Wikipedia)


Maude appeared in many of the novels of that era, using her beauty and brilliance to appeal to the reader’s emotions. After loosening the reader’s hand from the grip of cold logic and reason, she grabbed it and took the reader with her as she supped with sorrow, fought off lascivious brigands, and succumbed to both love and terror by swooning. Carried across the stormy seas of emotion, battered and bruised, now aloft on the crest of a wave, now almost drowning in its trough, the reader arrived at port, armed with a moral compass to find his or her way safely home. It was the only way Maude knew to teach the reader how to live nobly and morally. Ever the heroine, she drowned or died in story after story, the consequence of being too good for this world. She always showed up for work again the next day, ready to teach someone else.


Modern and post-modern readers who have grown up eating irony-fortified cereal for breakfast usually feel seasick after riding the high waves of sentimental novels from that period. Maude’s excesses led inevitably to parody and ridicule. She moved out of her manor, where she had entertained well-bred friends with refined sensibilities, and bought a house in town, next to the used bookstore. You have probably seen her shopping at Wal-Mart; the prices make her swoon.


People who write capital L literature want nothing to do with Maude. If she appears in your story or poem or essay, critics will label your writing sentimental, and they will use a sneering font on the label. As you know, labels written in sneering fonts are almost impossible to remove, so you can forget your dream of obscure fame in literary journals. Oh sure, there’s always the New York Times best-seller list, but do you really want to end up like Nicholas Sparks?


It’s probably too late to try to clear Maude’s name, no matter how much we may like her. I’ve noticed that she often uses her first and middle name these days: Maude Lynn*. She was never one to show restraint, any more than I do when it comes to puns. She chose a life of excess; that’s why a lot of people won’t make eye contact with her. I think she will always be popular, maybe not with the big L people, but with people who don’t capitalize their literature. I feel a certain amount of sympathy toward her, but I don’t like it when she glosses over the hard truths or pretends they aren’t there. I don’t like it when she takes the shortcut to happiness, to avoid the winos, addicts, and broken people who hang out at the bus station downtown.


I would like to live in a world with fewer problems; a world where every broken person is fixed. But as much as I would like to get to happiness faster, today I am not going to try to get there with Maude. I am going to go downtown and take the bus instead.


(*Note to reader: Gratuitous puns found on this blog are the result of an almost imaginary medical condition. Try not to judge.)

The tall dark stranger


Elmer (mother’s father), Ketz (her first husband), Clyde (her first son)

Mother was a monogamist four times. At least, I think she was. Pregnant at 15, she had her first child at 16. Before she gave birth to Connie, her first little green-eyed girl, she married the child’s father. Ketz was older than her and had charmed her with his good looks. It’s unclear if he was really her husband. Another wife lived somewhere in his past, and he may or may not have been legally divorced from her. Two years later, mother’s second child, Clyde, was born; a green-eyed boy with curly hair, who looked like his daddy.

Whether the first marriage was monogamy or bigamy, it didn’t last long. Ketz never wanted to put his hard-earned money into the hands of landlords and utility companies; he preferred investing in gambling and other women. Mother had nothing to give the bill collectors, so she left Ketz and moved back in with her mother.

Connie, the oldest girl, and Clyde, the oldest son

One year after  Clyde was born, Germany invaded Poland and World War II officially started. That year, 1939, President Roosevelt proclaimed U.S. neutrality, but just in case, he also asked for a $1.3 million defense budget.

The build up of the armed forces, along with increased federal spending, helped pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression, but unemployment was still high in the area of Pennsylvania mother lived in. So, she left the two children with her mother and went to New York to find work. Finally free from feeding, diapering, and caring for two small children, she went wild, dancing and drinking every night, and waking up on one particular morning with a tattoo of her name on her shoulder.

Mother (in the middle) at a nightclub in New York

One of the nights she went out drinking and dancing, she met Grady, a handsome officer in the Merchant Marines. They did more than just drink and dance together, and she got pregnant with her third child. Right about that time, Japan dropped its bombs on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. officially declared war. Grady shipped out, telling mother he didn’t know when he would be back. Late in her pregnancy when she could no longer work, her friends took her in. Her father, Elmer, died right after she gave birth to James, so she returned once more to her mother’s house, with another baby.

Jobs were hard to find in Barnesboro, so she left the three children with her mother and went to Chester to find a waitressing job. World War II brought manufacturing and ship building jobs to Chester, which sits on the Delaware River across from southwestern New Jersey. Once she found a job and got an apartment, her mother and the three children joined her. Not long after that, Grady showed up again and they decided to get married.

Mother’s darkest days were just ahead of her, but of course, she didn’t know that. You never do. The future, a tall dark stranger with good looks and an easy laugh, holds out his hand and you take it. In some stories he carries you off into the sunset and you live happily ever after. In other stories, he takes you home, beats the life out of you, and then leaves you out on the street with five children. And that’s exactly what mother’s future did.