The (Manly) History of Bay Rum

There’s a saying: “everything old is new again”. Which, when it comes to fashion is totally true. Take cologne: when I was in high school in the 80s, Old Spice was the tackiest thing imaginable. No guy – no matter if he was a jock, redneck, goth, skater or nerd – woulda been caught dead wearing the stuff. Yet somehow it’s “retro” and “hip” again. Go figure.

This is great, because bay rum – the classic American cologne and aftershave – is one of my favorite scents. But I bet you didn’t know where it comes from… which is actually pretty cool.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that sailors in the 1500s didn’t smell great. Contrary to what you might have heard, Europeans did bathe more frequently than you probably think they did. Except sailors. Even then they knew that bathing in salt water wasn’t fun, and there usually wasn’t enough fresh water on a ship to allow people to bathe. So while there were occasional sponge baths on a ship, sailors didn’t truly “bathe” until they ended up on land somewhere.

But at some point, early in the 1500s, sailors in the Caribbean discovered the West Indian bay leaf – pimenta racemosa (this is a different plant than the “bay leaf” you put in soups and stews; that’s the bay laurel leaf, laurus nobilis). Sailors noticed that the West Indian leaf contained a pleasant smelling oil that, when rubbed on the body, had a patchouli-like effect. Say what you will about patchouli, but I’d rather smell a sailor who hasn’t bathed in 6 months drenched in patchouli than one not drenched in patchouli.

Sugar plantations soon took over the Caribbean, and by the early 1600s some plantation owners discovered that their slaves had been secretly making a weak liquor out of molasses, one of the byproducts of sugar production. Intrigued, the owners took the drink and distilled it, thus making it far stronger and removing impurities present in the original drink. Although legend says that this liquor was first made on the island of Barbados, proof exists that it was being made a bit earlier in Brazil. Either way, the drink then called rumbullion took off, first in Colonial America, then Britain, then around the world via the Royal Navy.

We don’t know who it was – some evidence suggests a sailor, other suggests it was a merchant somewhere in the Caribbean – but either way someone, somewhere got the idea of steeping West Indian bay leaves in rum. That way it could be splashed on like a cologne, and the sailor wouldn’t have to rub leaves on his skin like a weirdo.

From there, the stuff can be traced to St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. A merchant – most likely a Dane named A. H. Riise – got the idea of adding citrus peel, cinnamon and cloves to the bay leaf-rum mix, then straining it and selling it as a ready-to-use cologne. Other Caribbean merchants invented their own particular blends. From there it spread to New York City, then to the rest of the United States, before heading over to Europe.

And the rest, as they say, is history. For decades, American barber shops reeked of the stuff, along with the heavenly smell of Clubman talc. Bay Rum kinda fell out of favor in the 1960s, but is an awesome, manly scent that surely deserves a Renaissance!


Turning a Blind Eye

There are tons of English phrases that have dubious folk origins. “Pig in a poke”, for example, allegedly comes from the medieval practice of selling suckling pigs in burlap bags at markets. Sometimes unethical sellers would (allegedly) put a stray cat in the bag instead, and the hapless customer wouldn’t discover this until he got home and “let the cat out of the bag”.

There is a phrase that has a folk origin that’s probably true… and it involves one of England’s greatest naval heroes.

Horatio Nelson wasn’t like other commanders in the Royal Navy. Where other captains seemed to relish flogging sailors for any offense, Nelson kept floggings to a minimum. Where other commanders treated his sailors like chess pieces, Nelson got to know each one and often asked about their families and interests. As a result, Nelson’s crew was very dedicated – more than one sailor said he’d “follow Nelson through the Gates of Hell”. Which was a good thing, since Nelson was far more aggressive than other commanders in the Royal Navy. Ships were expensive, both in terms of money and manpower. It was common to sail away from a losing battle so as to “fight another day”. But not Nelson. It was precisely when things looked their worst that Nelson fought the hardest, which led to the string of improbable naval victories he is remembered for today.

Once such victory happened at the Battle of Copenhagen. British ships under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker sailed into sight of the Danish capital on April 2, 1801. HMS Agamemnon ran aground almost immediately, and took no part in the battle. HMS Russell and HMS Bellona also ran aground, but were able to provide some fire on the Danish defenses. And speaking of, the Danish land defenses fired at the British fleet with considerable skill, providing far more resistance than the Royal Navy had anticipated. The battle seemed to tilt between a stalemate (at best) or a British loss (at worst).

Admiral Parker was known for being cautious, so it wasn’t a big surprise when he ran up the signal flags ordering a retreat. But Nelson wasn’t one to retreat, especially in a difficult situation like this. When Thomas Foley, one of his flag captains, pointed out the signal, Nelson turned towards it, put his telescope up to his right eye – which had been blinded in the Siege of Calvi in 1794 – and said “[y]ou know, Foley, I only have one eye — I have the right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal!” Thus, Nelson “turned a blind eye” to the retreat signal.

It was precisely at this moment that the battle turned in favor of the British. The Danes had put up a stout defense, but the relentlessly-trained gunners of the Royal Navy fired shot after shot at their defenses. One by one, the defender’s guns fell silent. But the pivotal moment happened when Nelson noticed that some of the Danish crews, not nearly as experienced as the British, were still firing from ships flying the flag of surrender. Nelson quickly penned the following note:

To the Brothers of Englishmen, the Danes

Lord Nelson has directions to spare Denmark when she is no longer resisting, but if firing is continued on the part of Denmark, Lord Nelson will be obliged to set on fire the floating batteries he has taken, without having the power of saving the brave Danes who have defended them.

– Nelson

Nelson gave the message to Captain Sir Frederick Thesiger, a Danish-speaking officer, and sent him to Crown Prince Frederik under a flag of truce. In truth, both the Danes and the British forces were exhausted, and neither side could have fought for much longer.

Frederik replied:

If your guns are not better pointed than your pens, then you will make little impression on Copenhagen.

Nelson replied:

Lord Nelson’s object in sending the Flag of Truce was humanity; he therefore consents that hostilities shall cease, and that the wounded Danes may be taken on shore. And Lord Nelson will take his prisoners out of the Vessels, and burn and carry off his prizes as he shall see fit.

Lord Nelson, with humble duty to His Royal Highness the Prince of Denmark, will consider this the greatest victory he has ever gained, if it may be the cause of a happy reconciliation and union between his own most gracious Sovereign, and His Majesty the King of Denmark.


A couple hours later, a cease-fire was agreed upon, and the battle ended. Sadly, not 30 minutes later, the Danish flagship Dannebrog exploded, killing 250 men… almost 20% of all Danish casualties in the battle.


Ever wonder why maple syrup bottles often have that tiny, useless handle?

Maple Syrup Skeuomorph

Ever wonder why station wagons from the 1960s through the 1980s had that awful fake wood paneling?

Station Wagon Skeuomorph

Both are examples of skeuomorphs, design features once practical elements of an object’s design that have been retained, even after the original element has disappeared. Maple syrup used to come in large earthenware jugs, and the handle was helpful in carrying it. Cars – especially trucks and station wagons – were once made with real wood paneling before car makers switched to more expensive steel.

The thing is, once you know about skeuomorphs, you’ll see them everywhere. There must be millions of plastic objects made to look like wood. Spokes are a necessary design feature for wagons or bicycles, but not cars. Yet it’s still at least somewhat common to see spokes on car wheels. Even the giant concrete pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge are skeuomorphs: the bridge is actually supported by abutments at the base of the pylons. The pylons were added to make the bridge look prettier, and to assure the public of its structural integrity.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

There are thousands of computer programs and smartphone apps that look like their physical equivalents – especially note-taking and calendar apps – even though there really isn’t a need for an app to look like a legal pad or a paper calendar. Steve Jobs was a huge fan of skeuomorphism: when he was alive, Apple software was chock-full of interfaces that looked like address books, notepads and bookshelves. Skeuomorphs need not even be physical objects: most phones make a clicking sound when taking a picture, even though they don’t have mechanical shutters!

Something especially interesting about skeuomorphs is that they are by no means a modern thing. Skeuomorphs go back thousands of years. Many design features of classic Greek temples – guttae, modillions, triglyphs and mutules – originated in construction of wooden temples. When the Greeks switched to stone construction, such things were no longer structurally necessary but they liked the look, so kept the design. Wealthy Minoans had elaborate metal cups, which potters made painstaking copies of for everyday folk, even down to little “nubs” of clay to mimic the rivets used in the metal cups. A little closer to our time, Fredrick the Great, ruler of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, hated that his soldiers wiped their noses on their uniform sleeves. He decreed that a row of buttons be sewn on the sleeves to prevent the men from wiping their noses on his uniforms. Three hundred years later, the buttons might have moved to the other side of the sleeve… but they’re still there.

So think about skeuomorphs the next time you click the floppy disk icon to save a file to your SSD, or tap an icon with a 1930s-era microphone to record a memo on your smartphone!


The Two Flags of France

Here’s something you might not know… France has two official flags! You’re probably familiar with this flag, often called the Tricolour or Tricolore in French:

Flag of France
(via Wikipedia)

But you might have seen this flag and not even noticed it:

Civil and Naval Ensign of France
(via Wikipedia)

What’s going on here? Why is one flag slightly different?

It all comes down to history, of course. The French Monarchy used a variety of flags over the centuries, but most had some form of blue shield and gold fleur-de-lis on a white background. The traditional colors of the city of Paris are blue and red, and during the French Revolution local militias wore red and blue cockades. Since white is a more “national” color, the Marquis de Lafayette suggested that white be added to the red and blue cockades, and the tricolor motif was born.

The flag of Paris:

Flag of Paris
(via Wikipedia)

Just move the stripes over and add a white one in the middle to create the new French flag.

But not really. The first post-Revolution flag actually had the stripes reversed:

First Flag of France
(via Wikipedia)

This flag was adopted on October 24, 1790, and the colors reversed to the current design on February 15, 1794. Despite this, the Tricolor wasn’t used often. Most commonly, the red flag of the Jacobin Club was flown as a national flag. But one guy really dug the Tricolor, and his name was Napoleon. Throughout his reign, the Tricolor was the official flag of France. But then, in 1815, the Bourbons were restored to power, and they went back to the white flag of old. Or rather, they did, until the July Revolution of 1830. It’s been the official flag of France ever since. In fact, after the overthrow of Napoleon III, the French elected a royalist majority to the National Assembly. The Assembly, in turn, offered the crown to Henri, Count of Chambord. But Henri demanded that the nation switch back to the white Bourbon flag. The French people – given the choice of the flag or a king – chose the flag. And that was the last of the monarchy in France.

But what about the weird flag at the top of this post, the one with the skewed proportions? That’s the naval ensign. Unlike the official flag, with three equal blue, white and red stripes, the naval ensign uses proportions of 30:33:37. Why? When seen at a distance, the proportions look normal, especially if the flag is flapping in the wind. But the thing is, the flags are so similar that they’re often used interchangeably. I’ve heard, for example, that the ensign is often placed behind government officials at press conferences, because the red is more prominent, and looks more like a “French flag” than the regular flag. When standing still, like at an indoor press conference, the red bits sometimes get lost in the folds of the flag, or are below camera level. Using the ensign fixes this.

Where It Ended

A couple thousand years ago, the Greek historian Plutarch posed an interesting question. Ships were made of wood at the time, and wood rots when exposed to water. So sailors were forever replacing bits of wood on a ship. What Plutarch wanted to know was, as the wood was replaced, at what point was it the same ship, and at what point was it a different ship?

It’s an intriguing question. If the sailors replaced a single piece of wood – one of the masts, say – almost everyone would agree that it was still the same ship. But what if the sailors replaced 51% of the wood? Would it still be the same ship then? What if that 51% was replaced over a long period of time? What if they replaced 49% of the wood and 10 years later they replaced the remaining 2%: would the 49% have been “grandfathered” as part of the original ship? If there was only a single piece of wood from the original ship left, but they built an entirely new ship around it, isn’t it still the same vessel as before? After all, a car enthusiast might buy a beat-up classic car and replace almost every single part as part of the restoration process. Is it not the same car?

Americans might recognize Plutarch’s thought experiment as “George Washington’s ax”.

In 1800, American author Parson Weems released his most famous work, a hilariously inaccurate biography of the nation’s first president called The Life of Washington. The book contained a completely fabricated tale about a young Washington being given an ax by his father; little George then went about chopping down anything he could find, including his father’s favorite cherry tree. When confronted, Washington reportedly said that he “could not tell a lie” and admitted his misdeeds.

The likelihood that this actually happened is near zero: Weems held Washington as a god, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear that Weems claimed Washington single-handedly defeated the British, found the lost city of Atlantis, and dug the Grand Canyon all by himself, too.

Still, Weems’ book was required reading in American schools for much of the 19th century, and teachers used the ax to illustrate Plutarch’s riddle: if you replaced the handle of George Washington’s ax, was it the same tool? What if you replaced the ax head a few years later? What if Washington’s family used the ax for a 100 years, and both the head and the handle had been repeatedly replaced… was it still the same ax?

*     *     *

One thing that is true is that various parts of ships were reclaimed over the centuries. Hemp ropes that outlived their usefulness were tweezed apart into individual strands called oakum, a type of caulking often used on ships. People who lived near ports often bought cheap reclaimed wood and used it to build stuff, or bought it to resell to other people who used it to build stuff. Like this barn in Buckinghamshire:

Mayflower Barn
(click to enlarge; photo via Wikipedia)

The barn was built by Thomas Russell in 1624, using timbers from a ship named… Mayflower. In the 1920s, English historian J. Rendel Harris confidently declared that the wood came from the Mayflower, the ship that transported the Pilgrims from Plymouth to New England. For decades, the barn was a tourist attraction, especially with Americans (it’s privately-owned and now closed to the public). Coincidentally, the barn is a stone’s throw from the grave of William Penn, founder and namesake of Pennsylvania.

Thing is, though, there were at least 37 other ships called the Mayflower at the time. So chances are slim that the wood is from the Mayflower. But it’s always a possibility. It is said that the wood was from a shipbreaker’s yard in Rotherhithe, which most certainly did exist, and likely was the final resting place of the Mayflower. But we’ll never really know for sure.

*     *     *

It’s thought that the Mediterranean was the birthplace of the sea trade, between Phoenicians, Greeks, Egyptians and others. And one of the first things those intrepid sailors would have learned about was weight.

If you put too much “stuff” on a ship, it rides low in the water, which makes it prone to sinking. Such ships are less maneuverable in the water, and if a few waves crash over the sides and into the cargo hold, the ship can lose buoyancy and sink. On the other hand, if you don’t put enough “stuff” on a ship, the opposite happens: it tends to ride high in the water, making it prone to tip over and sink.

Of course, this was easy to deal with on the voyage out: just make sure the ship isn’t too full, and she won’t ride low and sink. But it was a big problem on the way home, when cargo holds were often empty. So sailors started adding weight, or ballast, to empty ships to make them more stable in the water. Ballast could be anything at all, so long as it was heavy. They could have used lead balls or iron bars. But the cheapest option, by far, were plain old rocks. So a ship would arrive in port and empty its hold of goods. Most traders preferred to fill the hold with goods to take home to sell; if not, the crew would replace the missing weight with same amount of rocks.

For centuries, rocks from all over the world ended up on opposite sides of the globe. A little bit of Egypt ended up in Greece. A little bit of Fiji ended up in France. Little bits of India ended in up in England. That this happened isn’t in the least bit remarkable. In fact, marine archaeologists look for ship-sized piles of ballast rock when looking for shipwrecks.

Then World War II happened. Supply ships would leave New York with cargoes full of food and medical supplies for our English allies. Ships that safely arrived in Bristol would empty their cargo. But they needed ballast for the voyage home, and that’s when a unique situation presented itself: the Germans had bombed the hell out of Bristol, and the city had piles and piles of rubble everywhere. So the rubble was used as ballast, and when the ships arrived in New York they dumped that ballast in the exact same place. Eventually, the ballast built up so much that it formed a new piece of land:

(via Google Maps)

That little triangular bit near Bellevue Hospital on the east side of FDR Drive is made up almost entirely of former bits of Bristol. While it’s not unusual to find bits of volcanic rock from Hawaii at a port in, say, Turkey, it is unusual that so much ballast from one specific place was dumped in another specific place.

I’ll let English YouTube star Tom Scott take it from here:

Stranger Than Fiction

One of my favorite films is the 1984 “mockumentary” This Is Spinal Tap, which follows a failing English rock band on their final American tour.

But while the band is fictitious, many of the scenes in the film are said to be based on real-life events. The scene in which the band gets lost between their dressing rooms and the stage was based on something that allegedly happened to Yes (or, some say, Bob Dylan). Like Spinal Tap, Uriah Heep once played a gig on an air force base. The in-studio fight between Nigel and David was said to be inspired by an argument between members of The Troggs (hear the real-life, NSFW, argument on YouTube here).

One of the funniest moments in the film is the famous “Stonehenge scene”, in which Nigel (Christopher Guest) makes a sketch of a Stonehenge-inspired prop he wants to use on stage. Only thing is, he accidentally gives measurements in inches instead of feet. So when the prop appears on stage, it’s far less impressive than the band intended:

Spinal Tap Stonehenge

This was based on something that allegedly happened to Black Sabbath. So the story goes, the band’s manager, Don Arden, wanted similar Stonehenge-inspired props for the band’s stage show. There are two versions of what happened next: one is that he accidentally marked the measurements in meters instead of feet. The other is that he didn’t specify the units, and the contract was given to a French company that assumed the units were in meters. Either way, instead of a 15 foot tall replica of Stonehenge, the band ended up with a 15 meter tall replica –  around 45 feet – which was waaaayyyy too tall for most venues!

Similar confusion has happened elsewhere. Just ask the people of Wichita Falls, Texas.

*     *     *

A huge oil reservoir was discovered in Wichita County back in 1912. Up to 20,000 people rushed to the boomtown, and many locals became rich, some almost overnight. The previously unremarkable town was hit with a severe shortage of office space, and many deals took place on city streets. What the town needed was a place for all this business to happen.

Enter a man named J.D. McMahon. Here’s a photo of him:

Lyle Lanley

McMahon came to town and promised the people of Wichita Falls a beautiful new skyscraper that would rival anything in New York or Chicago. Naive investors lined up, and within a couple of weeks McMahon had collected $200,000 ($2.7m in 2014 dollars).

Construction soon began on this majestic building:

Newby McMahon Building
(click to embiggen)

As you can see, it’s not quite something that would rival the Empire State Building or Willis Tower. It is, in fact, considerably shorter than Wichita Falls residents had expected. Investors filed suit against McMahon before construction had even finished.

The judge sided with McMahon, and here’s why: McMahon had never told anyone out loud how tall the building would be, and the blueprints every investor reviewed and approved clearly stated that the building was to be 480″ (inches) tall. Either no one noticed that, or folks simply assumed it was a typo and the actual building would be 480′ (feet) tall. Regardless, according to the judge a deal was a deal, and this one was legally binding.

Investors were able to get some of their money back from the elevator company. They explained the scam to the vendor, and the company backed out of the deal and refunded their money. This left a bit of a problem, though: because the building was supposed to have elevators, architects didn’t bother putting in stairs. For a while, ladders were used to go from floor to floor… although this actually wasn’t much of an issue: the building was such an embarrassment to locals that no one wanted to rent there. Throughout most of the 1920s only two firms rented space there. The Great Texas Oil Boom ended only a few years later, and the Great Depression came soon after. In 1931, the inside of the building was gutted by a fire. Retail shops came and went with alarming regularity, and the building itself changed hands several times.

A funny thing happened, though. Although some residents held the building in scorn and contempt for the rest of their lives, some took a shine to it. Back in the 20s, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! had called it “the World’s Littlest Skyscraper”, and the name stuck. Although slated for demolition several times, Wichita Falls residents protested, and eventually the property was given to the city. In 1986, the city gave it to the Wichita County Heritage Society, hoping they could restore the then-crumbling building. But the building was just too far gone for the WCHS’s meager budget. Again there was talk of demolition, but this time two local businesses got together and convinced the city to sell it to them for a mere $3,748. A storm damaged the building in 2003; the damage was repaired quickly, but a full restoration wasn’t done until 2005. The building is now an official  Texas Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As far as I can tell from a quick Google search, McMahon was never seen in north Texas again, and no one knows what happened to him. Presumably he lived the high life, at least for a time, with the town’s money.

Baseball Stories

Baseball might be my fourth favorite sport, but with the playoffs in full swing (hah!), I thought I’d post a few baseball stories I’ve been saving up.

Check out this picture:

(photo via National Park Service)

After the War of 1812 – when the British notoriously burned Washington DC – President Madison had a fit of “closing the barn door after the cow escaped” and decided it might be a good idea to build a system of defensive forts on the east coast. Construction on several forts started, including, in 1829, a fort on Cockspur Island, Georgia, between Savannah and Tybee Island.

Major General Babcock was put in charge of the project, but was later replaced by second lieutenant Robert E. Lee. (yes, THAT Robert E. Lee).  By 1833, the fort was far enough along to get a name: Fort Pulaski, in honor of Kazimierz Pulaski, a Polish soldier who fought alongside George Washington in the American Revolution.

The fort was finally completed in 1847, after 18 long years of construction. It took such a long time partly because that’s how long it took to build a fort in a swamp in the 19th century. It also took so long because the fort was made out of brick –  like, a lot of bricks,  like, 25,000,000 bricks – and Savannah just didn’t have the infrastructure to quickly make so many damn bricks.

Then, of course, the Civil War broke out. Georgia governor Joseph Brown ordered the state militia to seize the fort, which became a Confederate stronghold. Meanwhile, Confederate military leaders thought nearby Tybee Island was too remote to be useful for anything, so troops were withdrawn from there. And thus, Union troops moved in.

One of the reasons American sharpshooters were so successful in the Revolutionary War was that they used rifles, not muskets. At their most basic, both guns are metal tubes that one packs with explosives and a projectile, like a bullet or musket ball. You aim the tube at an enemy and set off the explosives. This causes the projectile to travel down the tube at a high rate of speed and (hopefully) hit the enemy.

But rifles were far more accurate than muskets, and that’s because of curved ridges carved into the inner barrel of the gun. Those ridges are called rifling, and that’s why they’re called rifles. The grooves cause the projectile to spin, which greatly increases accuracy. It’s the same reason a quarterback wants to throw a football in a tight spiral rather than just heaving it down the field. Muskets, on the other hand, lack such grooves inside the barrels, which is why they’re sometimes called smooth-bore weapons. That’s also why muskets were inaccurate, like a quarterback under pressure just tossing the football away.

Although the benefits of rifled vs. smooth-bore guns were known to American military personnel as far back as the 1780s, no one had ever thought to build a cannon with a rifled barrel. Until the Civil War. Union soldiers now stationed on Tybee Island were equipped with a brand-new weapon called the James Rifled Cannon. And they unleashed it for the first time ever on Fort Pulaski.

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