President Herbert Hoover once praised a group of PR professionals. “You have taken over the job of creating desire,” he said, “and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines—machines which have become the key to economic progress.” It was 1928; the Great Depression began the following year.
While on his American speaking tour in 1882, Oscar Wilde visited Leadville, Colorado, where he went into a saloon. There was a piano player in the corner with a sign over him that said: DON’T SHOOT THE PIANIST; HE’S DOING THE BEST HE CAN. It was, observed Wilde, “the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across.” He also visited a nearby mine where, upon reaching the bottom, the miners implored him to stay for supper: “the first course being whiskey, the second whiskey, and the third whiskey.”
Athenaeus wrote that fourth-century-BC Greek courtesan Phryne was so beautiful “she used to wear a tunic covering her whole person” because it was “not easy to see her naked.” Once prosecuted for a capital crime, she was about to be declared guilty when the orator pleading her case brought her to the middle of the court and ripped off her tunic. The judges, “so moved by pity,” acquitted her of all charges.
A March 2018 report in the Wall Street Journal about a pre-Passover speech delivered by Israel’s prime minister included an error; a correction ran the following day. “An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Benjamin Netanyahu said Moses brought water from Iraq,” it read. “He said the water was brought from a rock.”
Menstrual taboos persisted in nineteenth-century Europe. In the Rhine it was said that women on their periods turned fermenting wine to vinegar, in France that they were unable to whip up a successful batch of mayonnaise, in Britain that “women should not rub the legs of pork with the brine-pickle at the time they are menstruating, or the hams will go bad.”
“Have you eaten a body scab to gain health, or have you drunk a solution of those little worms called lice, or drunk human urine, or eaten any feces to gain health?” asks Burchard of Worms’ collection of canon law, compiled around 1008. “If you have, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”
A Spanish gallant in the sixteenth century who followed the contemporary fashion of padding his trunk-hose with quantities of bran was surprised to learn while entertaining ladies that a nail on his chair had opened a hole in his hose, and bran had started trickling out. The ladies laughed. He continued, encouraged, but bran soon was pouring forth. The ladies’ laughter increased. Finally, the gallant noticed the bran, bowed, and left in shame.
William and Henry James’ younger brothers, Robertson and Garth Wilkinson, were both wounded during the Civil War—they enlisted in the second and first black regiments at the ages of seventeen and sixteen, respectively. When the fifth sibling, Alice, who suffered from various psychological ailments during her life, died in 1892, Henry cabled William the news. William responded, “I telegraphed you this am to make sure the death was not merely apparent, because her neurotic temperament and chronically reduced vitality are just the field for trance tricks to play themselves upon.”
Color film in the 1950s barely registered dark skin tones; Kodak had developed the product to measure images against the white skin of a model known as Shirley. The company eventually modified its film emulsion, responding to complaints from advertisers promoting wood furniture and chocolate.
Suetonius reported that Caligula often cheated when playing dice. The emperor once interrupted a game to go into the courtyard, where he spotted a group of rich knights passing. He had them arrested, stole their goods, then “resumed the game in high spirits, boasting that his luck had never been better.”