Cover image for Really useful : the origins of everyday things
Title:
Really useful : the origins of everyday things
Author:
Levy, Joel, 1971-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Buffalo, NY : Firefly Books, [2002]

©2002
Physical Description:
240 pages : illustrations (mostly color) ; 24 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Language:
English
Subject Term:
ISBN:
9781552976234
Format :
Book

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T212 .L489 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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T212 .L489 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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Summary

Summary

You undoubtedly know what a paperclip is and how to use it, but did you know that during the Second World War the people of Norway adopted paperclips as a symbol of protest against the occupying Nazis? Really Useful tells these and other stories of how the things we use every day came into being.

As much a sociological history as a compendium of entertaining stories, Really Useful takes you on a tour from the kitchen to the bathroom to the office and beyond. Along the way it tells us about the technology, design, social conditions and even intrigue that contributed to these remarkable innovations, which include:

sliced bread, microwave oven, coffee, tea bags, corkscrew and Teflon razor blades, Band-Aids, the toothbrush, lipstick and tissues air conditioning, buttons, vacuum cleaners, stockings and neon lights Post-It notes, the floppy disk, smoke detectors, fireworks and the battery barcodes, traffic lights, parking meters, padlocks

We sometimes curse these things as just so much clutter but in fact they form the fabric of our daily lives and we'd be lost without them. The stories of their origins are as interesting and illuminating as these objects are truly useful.


Author Notes

Joel Levy is a journalist and writer with degrees in psychology and biology who specializes in science, ancient history, anthropology and film. He is the author of A Natural History of the Unnatural World and has contributed to and edited over 20 titles on subjects as diverse as sex, gardening and back pain.


Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Some ordinary items possess more interest than others--say, the invention of the refrigerator, which traces its origins back to the Chinese habit of cutting and using blocks of ice to preserve foods in 1,000 B.C.E. Others have beginnings that many of us are already familiar with--such as Post-It notes born in the fertile minds of 3M scientists. And still others count in the "who cares?" category, varying from Tupperware to the invention of fireworks. Nonetheless, give Levy (author of A Natural History of the Unnatural World, 2000) some credit, since his more than 100 picks for everyday things demonstrate considerable research expanded in good prose. Geared to Trivial Pursuit-ers--and other collectors of zany intelligentsia flotsam. Further reading and useful Web sites appended. --Barbara Jacobs


Publisher's Weekly Review

The title might be a bit misleading: is it really useful to know that the ant is the only animal that can survive being cooked in a microwave? And if it's not exactly riveting to learn that Post-its were invented by a guy who was frustrated that his page markers kept falling out of his hymn book, that Leonardo da Vinci was the first person known to have designed a kind of calculator (if you discount the abacus) and that rubber erasers are no longer made of real rubber, it is rather addictive to glean such morsels. Delving into the circumstances that brought about objects from the "inside world" (kitchen, bathroom, etc.) and "outside world"(public spaces and "leisure"), Levy (A Natural History of the Unnatural World) champions the underdog-things as mundane as rulers, umbrellas and even Teflon, he tells us, have a story, too. The photography here is mostly in unabashed product-shot mold, and on the whole the book, with frosty color-faded backgrounds and extreme closeups throughout, looks a bit like a sales catalogue. Yet commerce has always driven invention, and it's heartening to know the human side of products that have taken on a mundane ubiquity. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Excerpts

Excerpts

Introduction Take a look around your house and you'll see that it's a kind of museum. In every room, on every surface, are the exhibits: everyday things that you take for granted, but each of which has its own story. Really Useful takes you on a tour of this museum, room by room, from top to bottom, exploring the history and workings of more than one hundred everyday objects. There's plenty of trivia and fascinating tidbits to uncover along the way-did you know, for instance, that the Frisbee is named after a Connecticut piemaker, or that the ant is the only animal that can survive being cooked in a microwave oven? Some broad historical themes also emerge. For instance, many everyday objects have surprisingly long histories, dating back to the dawn of civilization and beyond, and their development often follows a pattern: invented by the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians, perfected by the Greeks and Romans, lost in the Dark Ages, and rediscovered in the Middle Ages, mechanized and electrified by the Victorians, and mass-produced in the 20th century. The histories of everyday objects, however, are not simply tales of scientific breakthrough, technical progress, and inventive genius, although these have their place. The real driving forces behind invention and innovation are social and cultural ones, and this is doubly true for everyday things. Many of them were not always familiar or ubiquitous, and a second theme to emerge from this book is one of social transition. Items that can now be found in almost every household were once so rare and expensive that only the richest and most powerful could afford them, and they became symbols of rank and privilege in feudal societies. In ancient Egypt, for example, the nobility demonstrated their wealth by having pleats ironed into their clothes, while in ancient Assyria only the king might own an umbrella. As the feudal society gave way to the industrial society, such objects became more affordable and widespread, and during the 20th century mass-produced goods became cheap enough to be available to almost everyone. The industrial society has now become the consumer society, and what was once unattainable has become "everyday." This is a social transformation that affects every aspect of our lives today, and everyday objects have both reflected and been involved in this transformation. In some respects then, your home is a museum of social change, and the everyday things that it contains are the markers of that change. The next time you pick one up stop for a moment and consider the sheer wealth of history that can be embodied by something as ordinary as an umbrella or as simple as the crease in a pair of pants. Joel Levy Excerpted from Really Useful: The Origins of Everyday Things by Joel Levy All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Section 1 The Inside World
Kitchen
Dishwasher
Washing machines and clothes dryers
Pedal Trash Can
Refrigerator
Microwave oven
The Blender, Food Processor, and Stand Mixer
Toaster
Sliced bread
Kettle
Coffee makers
Tea bags and instant coffee
Cans, can openers, and ring pulls
Corks and corkscrews
Milk and juice cartons
Drinking Straws
Pepper mills
Food wrap
Paper and plastic bags
Tupperware
Pyrex
Teflon
Thermos flask and cooler bag
Bathroom
The Thermometer
Toilets and toilet paper
Shower
Mirrors
Shaving products (Razors/Foam)
Toothbrush, floss and toothpaste
Dentures
Lipstick
Deodorant
Plastic strip/Band-Aid
Tissues and cotton swabs
Tampons and sanitary towels
Hair styling
Hairdryer
Bedroom
Air conditioning
Beds
Futons and waterbeds
Venetian blinds
Clocks and alarm clocks
Radio and clockwork radio
Wristwatch
Spectacles
Sunglasses
Contact lenses
Buttons
Bikini
Brassiere
Stockings
Zipper
Safety Pin
Velcro
Condom
Study
Neon and fluorescent lights
Anglepoise lamp
Light bulbs
Plug and switches
Rubber erasers
Liquid paper
Paperclip
Stapler
Self-adhesive tape
Post-it notes
Rulers
Ribbons and tinsel
Scissors
Calculator
Photocopier and laser printer
Mail order catalogues
Credit cards
Telephone
Answering machine
Mobile phone
E-commerce
Personal computer
Computer Peripherals
General Household
Fire and smoke detectors
Fire extinguisher
Matches
Clothes iron
Vacuum cleaner
Television
Remote controls
VCR
Personal stereo
Binoculars
Umbrella
Section 2 The Outside World
Leisure
Cameras (SLR, Polaroid, digital), film
Fireworks
Bicycle
Waterproof clothing
Sneakers
Swiss Army knife
Compass
Flashlight
Battery
Barbecue
Kites
Frisbee
Tools
Lawnmower
Public Spaces
Elevators and escalators
Drinking fountains, water coolers and paper cups
Locks, keys, padlocks and key rings
Traffic innovations
ATM/Cash dispenser
Barcodes