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Mundane Inventions

July 7, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

The list that follows are a few inventions that we often take for granted. These mundane items offer a way of analyzing the cultural values and technologies on which we rely (sometimes without knowing it!). Enjoy!

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO):

Though highly contentious and ethically problematic, GMO has made it to the mainstream. This is less of an invention that we take for granted, and more of one that we know little about. Only the savvy consumer realizes that GMO items are in our clothes, food, and products. Originally, farmers saved seeds as the best method of reproduction. Unfortunately, crops were susceptible to pests and weather, so genetic modification made them heartier. As with all inventions, however, there is a potential fallout from tampering with nature. Making plants resistant also made insects evolve. There are many pros and cons, but it is worth investigating since a lot of the products that we depend upon also depend upon genetic modification. A better understanding of the science behind both the pros and cons can be found here.

Toilet Paper:

This might be the most mundane item on today's list, but an indispensible one. Yet, it is a relatively modern development, and one that inspires very little conversation. As with all inventions that have arisen to such mainstream status, it is good to look at the product from the outside to determine how it can be improved. As you can imagine, toilet paper first became available to royalty. The sheet size and makeup greatly differed depending upon culture and technology. However, it was not until the late 1800s that toilet paper became its own product. Closely linked to the paper-making process, it rose to popularity after Scott Paper Company placed it on rolls in 1890. Find a full history in the Toilet Paper Encyclopedia.

Disposable:

The idea of disposable is fascinating to unpack. Merriam-Webster notes that its first known use goes back to 1643, but has little information on that usage. Instead, the first applications of disposable products arrives in the late 1900s, with the rise of such products as disposable diapers and disposable spoons and cups. As we begin to throw away items of luxury, so too, disposable becomes an adjective which describes things like income. Disposable income, Merriam-Webster claims, is “income available for disposal”. I find that definition confusing at best. Today, our society heavily depends upon disposable products such as gloves, diapers and cups, just to name a few. It is important to look at the things we rely upon to better understand our current culture, as well as gauge what might be best for the future. For example, while disposable gloves have certainly helped the medical field, are disposable cups a necessity? Meant for travel or emergencies, many disposable objects have become mainstream, daily requirements. This trend directly correlates to our increasingly mobile lives. The conversation leads into a wonderful discussion of what is culturally beneficial, helpful or otherwise, necessary.

Find more on disposable cups or disposable diapers or disposable gloves.

Pockets:

Did you know that, according to Merriam-Webster, pocket can mean “a small bag carried by person”? This seems odd at first because a pocket is clearly not a bag. Yet, they did originate from bags, which is why Merriam-Webster also lists “a small bag sewn into a garment” as an alternative definition. The pocket, a seemingly mundane object, has a dozen turns of phrase. It has gained a number of metaphors because of its utility and significance. And maybe because of its secret contents. Authors are quick to pick up on such cues, and we find mentions of pockets strewn throughout literature.

Women's pockets and men's pockets developed separately and for slightly different reasons. Other than the fact that both seem to have originated as well-hidden spaces, they diverged from there. Women nowadays often carry money, phones and whatever else in a purse or handbag. Prior to that, mimicking men's pockets, women resorted to well hidden belts. (These greatly challenged the skills of a pick-pocket, which was a pretty sophisticated crime in retrospect). The original pockets would have been hidden under layers of clothing and attached to a belt of sorts, rather than their actual clothes. Women's pockets were difficult to access, whereas men's pockets were sewn into their interior coat linings or inside their suits.

Men have often used pockets for money, food and cigarettes or whatever else they might need. Prior to that, men often used knapsacks to carry food, hunting supplies or supplies. Since the invention of the pocket, men's clothing has found suitable ways of creating useful pockets. Size is understandably of importance: too large makes clothing overly bulky and too small makes the pocket useless. The Victoria and Albert Museum claims, “In contrast to the delicate, embroidered pockets of the 18th century, those of the 19th century are larger and quite plain.” This may be true of men's suits, but women's pockets remained fiercely attached to fashion trends, which often interrupt utility. It appears that women's clothing continues to create designs based off of look rather than purpose (though it can be argued that aesthetics serve a purpose, but that is discussion for a different day). Is it really that surprising to find that something so mundane as a pocket has a political history too?!

Recipes:

Food is a wormhole of investigation. One thing leads to another and really, it can be successfully combined in so many ways since success depends upon your very subjective tastebuds. Imagine, however, trying to create a delicious loaf of bread without a recipe. Not so long ago, recipes depended upon terms that lacked any specificity. Terms like “a dash” or a “handful” or “large” mean nothing to the inexperienced cook. Trial and error rules the day with recipe development. It is painstaking and often extremely aggravating. At times, however, a successful recipe grants a certain level of pride. This very interesting (and ambitious) website attempts to offer a timeline of foods, providing rough dates and cultural attachments. It is a fascinating journey through human civilization.

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