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The Story Behind: The Extraordinary History Behind Ordinary Objects

The Story Behind: The Extraordinary History Behind Ordinary Objects

by Emily Prokop
The Story Behind: The Extraordinary History Behind Ordinary Objects

The Story Behind: The Extraordinary History Behind Ordinary Objects

by Emily Prokop


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Discover the Surprising History of Ordinary Things

"Emily magically weaves a vibrant history of simple everyday objects we often take for granted. The Story Behind will surprise and delight..." ─Deana Marie, Creator & Host of the Twisted Philly podcast

#1 Best Seller in Trivia & Fun Facts, Art History, Design History & Criticism, Reference, Decorative Arts & Design, and History of Technology

Learn the fascinating history and trivia you never knew about things we use daily, from the host of The Story Behind podcast.

Everyday objects and major events in history. Every single thing that surrounds us has a story behind it. Many of us learn the history of humans and the major inventions that shaped our world. But what you may not have learned is the history of objects we surround ourselves with every day. You might not even know how the major events in history (World Wars, ancient civilizations, revolutions, etc.) influenced the inventions of things we use today.

The history and science behind the ordinary. From the creator of The Story Behind podcast comes one of the coolest coffee table books ever written. The Story Behind provides insight into everyday objects we don’t think much about as we use them. Topics covered in Emily’s podcast are examined in more detail along with new fascinating topics. Learn how lollipops got started in Ancient Egypt, how podcasts were invented, and why Comic Sans was created. Learn the torture device origins of certain exercise equipment and the espionage beginnings of certain musical instruments. Ordinary things from science to art, food to sports, customs to fashion, and more are explored.


  • Learn obscure history and fun facts and change the way you see the world
  • Discover how major historic events still affect us today
  • Become a formidable trivia master

If you have enjoyed books such as Now I Know, What If?, Ever Wonder Why?, The Greatest Stories Never Told, or Atlas Obscura; you will be entertained by The Story Behind.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633538283
Publisher: Mango Media
Publication date: 10/15/2018
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 79,923
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Emily Peck Prokop received her B.S. in Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University, and is currently a podcast producer and editor. When she discovered podcasting as a hobby, she finally found an outlet for the random information she collected that she loved to randomly bring up in conversations. While she never considered herself a history buff, she found it was easier to remember when put into the context of fascinating stories related to things that came about in today’s world. She’s been featured in numerous podcasts and enjoys getting behind the mic whenever she can. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, two kids, and two cats — all of whom get tired of hearing her start sentences with “I learned on a podcast …”

Read an Excerpt


Bubble Wrap

When World War II soldiers returned from the war and got an education, thanks to the GI Bill, this helped them purchase houses. The country boomed, not only with new babies, but also with new homes being built. The 1950s saw a shift from more traditional decor to families looking to the future, with space exploration on the horizon and futuristic movies and television influencing style choices.

By that time, wallpaper had evolved from a luxury only the rich could afford to a more affordable commodity anyone could use to easily and quickly spruce up their walls. In 1957, Alfred W. Fielding and Marc Chavannes wanted to create a high-end plastic wallpaper. The main draw would be that the wallpaper was textured and would add a pop (pun totally intended) of fun to the walls.

In Fielding's garage, they sealed two plastic sheets together, creating air pockets trapped inside, and put a paper backing on it. Unfortunately, the design wasn't as popular as they had hoped, and the two inventors had this amazing material but no use for it. Originally, it was known as Air Cap, and Fielding and Chavannes formed the company Sealed Air to market it.

They first tried marketing it to greenhouses as a sort of cheap insulation, but it was difficult to market plastic for walls. Luckily, another futuristic innovation would help them use this material.

IBM premiered its new 1401 variable-word-length computer in 1959, but there was concern about the difficulty of shipping the new hardware without damaging it using the traditional shipping materials of newspaper, straw or horsehair.

Frederick Bowers, a marketer at Sealed Air, pitched the material to IBM, and finally a use was found for Bubble Wrap. (Bubble Wrap, by the way, is the trademarked name.) Sealed Air began expanding its product offerings to more shipping materials, such as envelopes made with Bubble Wrap padding, which became especially popular in the 1980s with the popularity of the floppy disk. (The first ones were actually floppy and easily damaged.)

The days of sealing two plastic sheets together were long gone, but, in 1957, a machine was made to produce the material with the bubbles evenly spaced. The machines used today are not that different, although there are more of them and they are much bigger than the original, which was the size of a moderately-priced sewing machine at the time.

The materials used now are more environmentally friendly, but still remain strong enough to reuse. However, newer shipping material is always being explored by companies like Amazon who ship huge quantities of items, since big rolls and sheets of Bubble Wrap take up a lot of storage space.

One question that comes up a lot with Bubble Wrap is about how to properly use it to package items — with the bubbles out or in. The recommended way is having the bubbles facing inward to better pad the item being wrapped. It also helps keep small parts in place more effectively.

But what many consider Bubble Wrap's best quality is the stress relief that comes from popping it. And that stress relief isn't just a theory. It was shown in a 1992 study that subjects who were given Bubble Wrap to pop were found to be more relaxed and alert afterward. A few theories exist as to why, including one in which our primitive brain associates the sensation with crushing ticks or insects, but the more plausible (and less gross) theory is that humans are drawn to tactile (touch) sensations, and using worry beads or fidget toys, or popping Bubble Wrap, can help us release that stress.


Sealed Air licenses a calendar version of Bubble Wrap, in which each day is printed on a piece of paper underneath Bubble Wrap and consumers can pop a bubble a day.


[??] Bubble Wrap was originally created as 3-D wallpaper.

[??] It took a while before the inventors of Bubble Wrap found a use for it, but once computers became more mainstream, manufacturers sought better ways to ship them, and Bubble Wrap proved to be the perfect solution.

[??] Popping Bubble Wrap has been proven to be stress-relieving, so pop away!


Comic Sans

Ah, the font many typographers and graphic designers cringe at. If you don't know the font I'm referring to, think of the speech bubbles in comics. The hand-drawn-looking characters became the basis for the Comic Sans font, which has become associated with schools and kids' activities, and, if you collected Beanie Babies in the '90s, you'll recognize it as the font from the TY company.

It's definitely not as formal as Times New Roman, a common font in newspapers, or Helvetica, which is used for many business names and logos. It's fun and light-hearted. But that doesn't come without downsides, as many who are familiar with fonts find it difficult to take anything seriously if it's written in Comic Sans.

Vincent Connare was the brains behind the font. While working at Microsoft in 1994, he was tasked with finding a font for the speech bubbles of a character in a computer program called Microsoft Bob, which was designed for kids.

This software interface was made to look like a cartoon, but the designers were using Times New Roman in the speech bubbles, and that didn't seem right to Connare. He looked to the stack of comic books he had in his office for inspiration, particularly Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. He began crafting the letters, but, when applied to the speech bubbles in the software, the all-capital-letter font wouldn't fit.

He added lowercase letters to the font, but it was too late, and Microsoft Bob had already come and gone by then. But Microsoft did pick up the font for its Movie Maker application. The original name was Comic Book, but it was then changed to Comic Sans.

The font was kept by Microsoft and added to the system fonts in Windows 95 and Internet Explorer. Apple seemed to copy the concept and included the similar font called Chalkboard in Mac OS X.

If you've been around enough people who work in design, you probably know that Comic Sans gets a pretty bad rap, despite being pretty common in everyday signage.

Dave and Holly Combs, graphic designers from Indianapolis, started a group called Ban Comic Sans in 1999 after their employer insisted they use the font for a children's museum exhibit.

When Lebron James left the Cavaliers to "take his talents" to the Miami Heat in 2010, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote an angry letter on the team's website in Comic Sans. Though many were angered by James leaving, the intensity of the letter written by Gilbert was dulled by the whimsical (or, if we're being less generous, ridiculous) nature of the font he used.

When the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, discovered the Higgs boson, otherwise known as the God particle, in 2012, the discovery was almost overshadowed by the disgust people expressed after the scientists presented their findings in Comic Sans.

Two French designers, Thomas Blanc and Florian Amoneau, started a Tumblr called the Comic Sans Project, in which they reimagined famous brand logos redone in Comic Sans, and it's a little off-putting to see something as iconic as the AC/DC band logo made into a playful-looking logo, just by changing the font.

When Pope Benedict XVI stepped down, the Holy See published a digital scrapbook filled with photos of his papacy, and committed the graphic designers' "deadly sin" of using Comic Sans as the typeface.

Even Weird Al Yankovic poked fun at the font in his song Tacky, singing, "Got my new resume/it's printed in Comic Sans."

I've asked teachers why schools use Comic Sans, and the best answer I've gotten (aside from, "it's just how we've always done it") is that the font is the most similar to how letters should be written by their students when they're learning to write. It's one of the few fonts that show the lowercase a's, especially, as children are taught to write them, while other fonts have a hook at the top of the a.

Even as I write this in Google Docs, I'm offered 16 fonts for my use, and only two of them don't have that hook on the top of the a. Want to guess which ones? Corsiva and Comic Sans.

Comic Sans has also been said to be a recommended font for those with dyslexia, as it might be easier for them to read fonts that look more like handwriting, and the heaviness of it may make it stand out more. But studies on this have varied as far as how true this may be.

No matter what your personal opinion of Comic Sans is, you may want to heed some comic-book advice: With great power comes great responsibility. Use Comic Sans wisely.


When you see Sans in a font name, it refers to "Sans Serif" (or "without serifs"). Serifs are the tiny little lines attached to the ends of letters, such as in Times New Roman, whereas a font like Arial doesn't have serifs.


[??] Comic sans was created by Vincent Connare when he was working at Microsoft in 1994.

[??] It was originally designed for Microsoft Bob, but wasn't finished in time for its release. It premiered with the Windows Movie Maker application instead.

[??] When Lebron James left the Cavaliers to play for Miami in 2010, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote an angry letter on the team's website in Comic Sans, which made it lose a bit of its edge.


Correction Fluid

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was no such thing as autocorrect (gasp!) or even a backspace key (double-gasp!). Back in a time when typewriters, ink, and paper were the norm, people were tasked with typing or hand-writing important papers and correspondence. Oh, sure, there were erasers for mistakes made with pencil, but, for formal documents, erasers sometimes just made more of a mess.

Aside from misspellings, typewriters were known to jam or even type something on the wrong line. Even though typing classes were common in high schools, you can still imagine how easy it was to make mistakes when you think about how long you've been typing on a computer keyboard, yet still have to use the backspace button.

In 1951, when single mom Bette Nesmith Graham found work as an executive secretary for W. W. Overton, the Chairman of the Board of the Texas Bank and Trust, she realized she was prone to these types (pun intended) of mistakes in her typing. And she wasn't the only one. Her colleagues were also making more mistakes when the bank began using electric typewriters.

(Now, kids, remember, this story ends happily, but this is where the scary part comes in.)

Back then, when a mistake was made on a typed piece of paper, the typist would have to take the whole piece of paper out of the typewriter and (eek!) throw it away and start from scratch! All over one error!

One day, Graham came upon painters decorating bank windows for the holidays. When the painters made a mistake, Graham noted, they would just cover it with an additional layer of paint, instead of trying to redo it. This gave her an idea.

She went home and began experimenting with white tempera paint in her kitchen, because of its fast-drying and long-lasting properties. Graham began using bottles of her creation at work to correct her typing mistakes, and as soon as other secretaries saw what was called Mistake Out, by 1956, orders started pouring in.

Graham realized she was onto something, especially with the new popularity of electric typewriters, which made people more prone to mistakes because of their higher finger sensitivity compared to manual typewriters.

With some help from her son's chemistry teacher, Graham experimented with the formula and settled on a combination of titanium dioxide, which is commonly used as a pigment enhancer in paints and even some makeup, and mineral spirits, which allows the product to dry faster.

She renamed her invention Liquid Paper and began learning business management and marketing to help promote her product, while still working as a secretary.

But not for long.

Graham was soon fired from her job for, of all things, a typing mistake. She accidentally typed her own company's name at the top of a letter, instead of the bank's name. But by that time, it didn't matter. Liquid Paper had already taken off, and Graham could afford to go full-time with the business.

She patented the Liquid Paper formula and even pitched the product to IBM in 1957, but was turned down. But, by the next year, Graham's factory was filling orders of ten thousand bottles per day, and businesses realized there was a market for the product.

In 1966, Wite-Out hit the market as a competitor and became the generic name for correction fluid. Graham was finally able to sell the product in 1979 to Gillette a year before her death. While computers have taken the place of most typewriters, the popularity of Liquid Paper for instances when someone makes a mistake with a pen and paper still keeps the product (and its competitor) in business.


Bette Nesmith Graham, the inventor of correction fluid, was the mother of Michael Nesmith, a member of the popular '60s television show and band the Monkees. He is known for his signature green hat and came into his audition for the show with a load of laundry to fold while he waited.


[??] Prone to typing mistakes, Bette Nesmith Graham invented correction fluid in her kitchen.

[??] IBM turned Liquid Paper down, not seeing a market for it.

[??] Wite-Out came later to the market, even though the name eventually became the generic term for correction fluid.


The Paper Clip

Many of the objects I'm writing about in The Story Behind evolve in one way or another from the original invention — but not this one. In fact, before paper clips, papers were held together using string or wax. It was common for office clerks to have a number of small cubbyholes at their desks to keep corresponding papers together.

There were a number of methods used to keep papers together, like pasting pages together, melting sealing wax, or using a needle and thread to sew through slits in the papers made with a pen knife.

One of the most popular methods was the use of straight pins made of iron in the nineteenth century, but, as you can imagine, people were easily pricked. The common problem with these methods was the damage done to the pages.

By the mid-1800s, steel became a more common material to work with, since it was easily malleable but would still hold its strength. It also had the characteristic of not rusting, which made it an ideal material to explore for binding papers instead of the iron straight pins, which would leave rust marks on papers.

Many believe the paper clip was invented in Norway by Johan Vaaler. In fact, a giant-paper-clip monument was erected in Oslo to commemorate the invention. However, the paper clip Vaaler invented doesn't resemble the ones we know today (and the monument to him isn't even his original clip design).

Vaaler's design, created in 1899, was more like a rectangular version of the paper clip we know today, but with the inner loop removed.

Paper clips continued to hold a special place in Norway's history, though. Going back to World War II, it was decreed illegal to fasten any sort of patch to one's clothing, especially if it showed allegiance to the king. Norwegians began fastening a single paper clip to their clothing as a way to show solidarity.

Before that, however, another designer, named Samuel B. Fay, had designed a clip that was meant to be used to fasten tickets to articles of clothing. It had the shape of an upside-down teepee, a triangle with the two angled sides extending beyond the point at which they met. But, again, still not quite the paper clip we know today.

The modern-day paper clip isn't actually patented. But the machine to make them is. The official name of the paper clip we're most familiar with is the Gem Paper Clip. No one actually knows who invented the very first one, although there has been incorrect speculation that it came from the Gem Manufacturing Company in Britain in the 1870s.

While the design came over to the United States in the 1890s, it wasn't until 1899 that a patent was issued to William Middlebrook of Connecticut for the machine that would take a thin piece of steel and loop it around twice to form the Gem clip.

This design was springy enough to hold papers together, and the additional loop meant that taking off the clip wouldn't result in tearing the paper as much as Vaaler's invention did. He sold his patent for the design to the office-supply company Cushman & Denison, which trademarked the name Gem Paper Clip.

While variations have come along, the original design has lasted more than one hundred years and shows no sign of going away anytime soon.

The paper clip is pretty ubiquitous by now. Even if we don't see a physical one on a daily basis, we see the symbol for it on the button to attach something to an email.

Aside from holding papers together, a Canadian by the name of Kyle Macdonald found another use for it. He found himself with no job, but he had a website and a red paper clip. And, in the early 2000s, he knew that the craze over buying, selling, and trading on eBay could be his ticket to a house.

So he put up a website with the intention of trading his paper clip, with the goal of trading and trading up to finally get a house. At first, he started by trading his red paper clip for a pen shaped like a fish, then the pen for a door knob, then the door knob for a barbecue. He went through about fourteen trades with other things, like a live appearance with Alice Cooper and a paid spot in a movie, to finally end up trading for a house in Saskatchewan.


Excerpted from "The Story Behind"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Emily Prokop.
Excerpted by permission of Mango Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

SAMPLE ENTRIES (plus much more!) 1. Peanut Butter​ - Used as a source of protein during World War II, and soldiers popularized it when they came back from the war. 2. The Treadmill​ - Originally used for prisoners to generate energy and as a form of punishment, and now we pay money to use them. 3. The Lollipop​ - Started with ancient Egyptians eating honey on sticks. 4. The Lead Pipe​ (from The Clue Series in which every episode in the series was based on one of the six original weapons of the game Clue) - Even in ancient times, people were aware of the dangers of lead. 5. Podcasts ​- The controversy surrounding who actually invented them and/or the technology needed for them. 6. Comic Sans​ - Originally designed to be used in a learning computer game, now used on school fliers, to the chagrin of graphic designers everywhere. 7. The Theremin​ - The creepy instrument popularized in sci-fi movies was actually brought over to America from Russia as part of a spy mission. 8. Lullabies ​- How lullabies are used in different civilizations and how certain beat patterns are used in lullabies to mimic rocking. 9. Mad Hatters​ - Even though they aren’t around anymore because we now know the dangers of mercury, find out why we say the phrase “mad as a hatter,” and who Lewis Carroll’s character was supposedly based on. 10.Gunpowder ​- Originally invented by alchemists looking to create gold, used as fireworks, then as a powerful weapon, and part of a plot in England by Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament in 1605.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"There's something so fascinating about looking into the history and stories behind the everyday, mundane, and ordinary. Emily's book will perfectly scratch the itch of curiosity you have for thing you see everyday!" —Patrick Foote, Author of The Origin of Names, Words and Everything in Between

“Emily Prokop’s The Story Behind takes a holistic look at American and world culture through the everyday items we take for granted. It is in this perspective that we’ll grow to wonder about the other items that surround us on a daily basis, and what fantastic and controversial stories are hidden within them. The Story Behind is a spark of curiosity that will burn long after you’ve turned the final page.” —Josh Hallmark, Host & Producer of Our Americana podcast

"Packed full of information you didn't know you wanted to know, Emily's book will make you look at the ordinary objects that surround you in a completely different way." —Mark Des Cotes, Host of the Resourceful Designer podcast

"Emily magically weaves a vibrant history of simple everyday objects we often take for granted. The Story Behind will surprise and delight, encouraging you to give everything a second look." —Deana Marie, Creator & Host of the Twisted Philly podcast

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