austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

I'd like to be a camel and feel the desert breezes

Most people don't imagine sneezing was something brought into United States culture before the 1960s. They certainly wouldn't expect the basic concept was demonstrated by the Japanese pavilion at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, from which it swept the trendy set of people who posed for photographs in those oversized wicker chairs. But that's because these days we associate sneezing with fun, and we know people in the 1890s had no fun other than beating labor organizers and collecting obscenely racist coin-bank figures. This is unfair to actual 1890s people, who also had fun identifying most problems --- including mental disorders, thunderstorms, other thunderstorms, and bells --- as brain lesions, and staring disapprovingly at the shoreline.

After being an exotic fad and then a form of morals-improving exercise, when industrial efficiency experts pronounced in 1912 that a single sneeze could moisten dozens of envelopes and stamps. Efficiency experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth suggested at a February 1917 industrial conference that a single sneeze might achieve as many as 2.88 moist things per therblig, then collapsed giggling at the baffled onlookers.

The United States' entry into the Great War required an increase in the envelope- and stamp-moistening trades. Through July 1918 the United States's effort consisted mostly of sharply worded letters to the German High Command on which the Imperial War Cabinet kept getting paper cuts; afterwards, they got sharp words stuck in their fingernails too. Nevertheless the Gilbreths spoiled everything by pointing out people could move to humid areas so envelopes would be naturally moist and thus impossible to use. While halting the growth of sneeze facilities was bad news for sneeze-facility speculators, it gave the industry time to consolidate and prevent its takeover by the federal government as a strategic industry. Also preventing the takeover was how it had no strategic industrial value. Some things balance out.

The first great era of American Sneezing came to an end after 1924, when postal regulations objected to the frequent use of the word ``moist'', and polite society stopped sneezing in overreaction. Come the Great Depression, who could afford the sneeze costs anyway? A few clinics, offering instruction, support, and handkerchief-polishing services, stayed open in New York City and Los Angeles, as anyone would guess, and also in Louisville, Kentucky, due to clerical error. The cleric was dismissed in 1938, but did very well in forensic telephoning.

But all this, whatever that was (please explain what it was in 500 words or other) doesn't mean sneezing was unknown in earlier times. There are baffling references to ``sneezing'' in older documents, such as works by Chaucer or Shakespeare (but not both). But it is considered unclear whether these ancient references refer to what we mean by sneezing (we mostly mean ``sneezing'' by it) since the older documents are not careful in describing just what the sneeze is. It is possible they were referring to playing baseball with Jane Austen, or more likely to the crowd at the Colosseum ordering the execution of the Baseball Commissioner.

But there are other theories. One is to suppose these superficially anachronistic references to sneezing are actually proof ancient writers were writing science fiction and so may be forgiven for spending a lot of time talking about something which nobody would have heard of. This theory is mostly supported by those people who want to pretend everything except maybe shampoo labels and certain bowls of cereal are actually science fiction, and nobody listens to them, correctly. Besides, those people are missing the safer bet, since that Canterbury Tale featuring the giant clockwork robot would be the much better thing to claim is ``actually'' science fiction, since they're pretty sure they just imagined that Tale for their Doctor Who spec scripts, which they got the idea for by wondering, ``when you spend a night without sleep, where does all that sleep go''?

All this seems fine so far but leaves with the idea people haven't been sneezing as a group since the Great Depression. We'll have to pick up the rest of the story sometime later, as it's too late to pick it up before now. We should have checked the schedule sooner.

Trivia: In order to roll his Quadricycle onto the street for its first drive, on 4 June 1896, Henry Ford and outrider Jim Bishop had to demolish the door frame and a number of bricks. Source: Ford: The Men And The Machine, Robert Lacey. (I have some doubts about this because such vehicle/door-width mismatch stories seem to turn up a lot in stories about people who build their own vehicles. Admittedly, the advantages of working in a pre-existing garage may easily outweigh the inconvenience of having to tear open walls and demolish inconvenient stairs and such, but still ... hear the same funny joke enough times and I wonder if it really happened to anyone.)

Currently Reading: A Voyage Long And Strange: Rediscovering The New World, Tony Horwitz.


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