Now let us praise ubiquitous household tools. Inspired by Anita Lahey’s celebration of the clothespin in Issue 20, Maisonneuve ponders three other oft-ignored domestic fixtures.
When you have a hunk of beef round, spaghetti squash or a popcorn shell stuck between your second bicuspid and your first molar, things can get tricky. You need a kind of thin, pointy object to dislodge bits of food stuck between your teeth. You need … a toothpick. Research in paleontology suggests that even early hominids understood the basics of oral hygiene. Curved grooves found in the teeth of prehistoric humans are believed to be from the abrasive silica fibers in the first grass-stalk toothpicks. Talk about having the right tool for the job.
The modern toothpick (only about $2 for a box of 500) looks much like its early prototype. Although Silas Noble and J. P. Cooley of Granville, Massachusetts, patented the first toothpick-manufacturing machine in 1872, today the state of Maine claims to be the toothpick capital of the world, producing “90 percent of the country’s toothpick supply.”
Toothpicks, too, can be works of art. At the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum you can view the mastery of Bob Shaney of Ligonier, Pennsylvania. Bob carved an entire train out of a single toothpick. Now that’s precision whittling.
If you wake up one morning feeling like life is meaningless, just grab $20 and sign up to become a member of the National Toothpick Holder Collectors' Society (NTHCS). Formed in 1973, the NTHCS “promotes and supports the collecting of toothpick holders, and provides education for both members and non-members by providing research, written documentation, new articles, and by participating in other collector-related events.” Members also receive ten newsletters each year.
Since we’re on the topic of collectors, let’s move onto our next invaluable invention:
Though a vegan will never have a practical use for an egg cup, he or she might very well find a novelty model in the shape of a fish, bird, chicken or any other species from the animal kingdom quite appetizing. A lot of people collect egg cups just for fun, but some take it seriously (the pursuit is officially known as “pocillovy”). In fact, for the 500 or so members of Egg Cup World in the UK, egg-cup collecting “has become a way of life.”
Of course, there are practical uses. Egg cups are miniature goblets; if a Bigfoot action figure wanted to toast a twelve-inch candlestick, an egg cup would be the perfect vessel. (Although this doesn’t mean that real people can’t sip wine or shoot tequila from an egg cup as well). For some, however, it is more useful to think of an egg cup as a pedestal upon which to place a soft-boiled egg—literally. Egg cups are a practical breakfast utensil, especially for the Brits (soft-boiled eggs are traditionally part of a healthful English breakfast). Here, the egg cup plays an important role. Watch for the egg cup in the following instructions: Place egg in boiling water (1–4 minutes). Cool egg under cold water. Set egg into egg cup. Cover egg with egg-cup bonnet (optional). Ready toast. Take a knife and sliver off the top of the egg. Enjoy! Actually, egg cups are a lot like operating tables: If you want to give an egg a lobotomy, get yourself some egg cups.
The first images of egg cups appear in a Turkish mosaic dating from 3 AD. Early egg cups were discovered amidst the ruins of Pompeii from 79 AD. Later, during the French Revolution, it is said that King Louis XV helped to popularize egg cups when citizens of the republic tried to imitate their king’s ability to “decapitate an egg at a single stroke.”
You can sweep a lot of different things with a broom. Regular people use them to house-clean; to sweep up fallen chocolate-covered raisins, spilled dog food and hidden dust bunnies. Curlers use brooms to smooth ice with friction (Men with Brooms or The Tournament of Hearts, anyone?). Witches use them as a fantastical mode of transportation.
All over the world, brooms are highly superstitious objects. A common rule is that a dropped broom in front of a door means that visitors will arrive before the day is through. A lot of other broom superstition has to do with sweeping at the wrong time of day or too soon after a guest has departed. Jumping over brooms, sometimes cryptically called “Jump-the-Broom,” is also popular at weddings—it originated as an African-American custom to mark a couple’s union when slaves were forbidden from marrying.
Original brooms were branches or loose bundles of natural fibres. The fibres used in modern brooms are from a variety of sorghum grass commonly called “broomcom.” In the 1800s, the United Society of Believers (aka. the Shakers, an offshoot religious order of the Quakers) invented the flat broom, which is a better design for pushing around dirt than the round broom. The Shakers have had a corner on corn-straw-broom manufacturing in the United States for over 200 hundred years now, developing machinery to produce up to two dozen brooms per-person-per-day in the early nineteenth century. Only with the North American Free Trade agreement in 1994 did imported broomcom brooms from Mexico affect the viability of Shaker production.
Today, brooms are a highly evolved household utensil. Take the Swiffer: Not only has it done away with bristles, but it lets you “sweep,” or even “sweep/mop,” to your heart’s content without need of a dustpan. Crazy.