Really Useful: The Origins Of Everyday Things

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Globe and Mail
A really useful book for spicing up your cocktail chatter.
Montreal Gazette - Kathryn Greenaway
Guaranteed to trigger conversation ... a lovely mix of archival photos, scientific visuals and beautifully lighted contemporary photography.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - John Marshall
Who knew a hair dryer could look so darn sexy?
Los Angeles Times News Service - Michael Pakenham
Lavishly illustrated ... provides a concise, well-written essay on each [object], offer facts on its origin, purpose, inner secrets, history and utility.
Volume 91 American Scientist
Those with even a passing interest in the historical roots of such familiar objects will find Levy's book delightfully informative.
Booklist - Barbara Jacobs
Considerable research expanded in good prose ... zany intelligentsia flotsam.
Publishers Weekly
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.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Sliced bread, Post-It Notes, matches, buttons, cameras, key rings, raincoats, Swiss army knives, light bulbs, toilet paper.... This merry encyclopedia tells the stories of the things we'd really miss: who invented them, how they work, how they've changed. Joel Levy invites us to see our homes and public places as museums full of exhibits that are in constant use. On his tour of these everyday museums, he shows us how many things we are apt to regard as quite modern, like condoms, batteries, vending machines (yes, batteries, yes, vending machines!), have their origins quite far back in human history. Even e-commerce, the most recent invention on the tour, goes back a little earlier than I would have supposed. Levy is a British journalist with a breezy style and a knack for clear explanations. (The book's UK origins reveal themselves in the entries on the teabag and the electric teakettle.) His choices, illustrated with witty color photographs and beautifully designed, invite readers to look at the things around them with a fresh eye. I would highly recommend Really Useful to students and teachers except that, when you want to check the facts, learn more, or just find a tantalizing bit of information again, the book becomes really useless. "Further reading" is limited to five books and nine Web sites. I spotted one typo—William Caxton's book "catalogues" was first issued in 1479, not 1749. And the absence of Caxton, Napster, Universal Product Code, James Dewar, China (to mention just a few proper nouns in the text I tried to look up) from the index is scandalous. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Firefly Books, 240p. illus.bibliog. index.,
— Karen Reeds
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781552976227
  • Publisher: Firefly Books, Limited
  • Publication date: 10/5/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 7.75 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Table of Contents

Section One: 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 Two: 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
• Barcode

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Preface

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

Read More Show Less

Introduction

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 feudalsocieties. 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

Read More Show Less

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2007

    Fun light read

    If you are in the mood for a book that you can read a bit at a time and jump around to different products, this one would be the one for you. I enjoyed it quite a bit and learned many random facts. Is it the most perfect book, no but it is not meant to be. Just a fun, random, light read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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