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An Uncommon History Of Common Things


Quirky Compendium Uncovers Facts Behind Hundreds of Ordinary Objects, Events, Inventions

WASHINGTON - The first people to paint their nails were the Chinese, around 3,000 B.C. The earliest typewriters were the size of pianos. The bathing suit first appeared during the Greco-Roman era, then disappeared, resurfacing in the late 19th century. Queen Elizabeth l owned more than 2,000 pairs of gloves. These and a myriad other facts are to be found in a new book from National Geographic, publishing this fall, that gives the intriguing story behind hundreds of customs, events and everyday objects.

AN UNCOMMON HISTORY OF COMMON THINGS (National Geographic Books; ISBN: 978-1-4262-0420-3; Nov. 17, 2009; $40; hardcover), by Bethanne Patrick and John Thompson, is a wide-ranging compendium that reveals the curious origins and far-reaching implications of things we take for granted every day. Who invented underwear? The sandwich? Sneakers? What ancient society came up with time-release deodorant, glitter eye shadow and pregnancy tests? Where did we get the custom of handshaking — and why did George Washington disdain it? Which tool was the first one added to the Swiss Army knife — and what particular need did it fulfill?

This delightfully different reference book blends entertaining text, colorful illustrations, handy timelines and peerless research to explore a wide range of subjects, from holidays and health to food and footwear to toys and transportation. Would you believe that indoor plumbing dates at least as far back as 2600 B.C.? That we can thank medieval scribes for punctuation, capital letters and the handy space between written words? Did you know the American front porch is an architectural tradition from Africa...that an early version of pizza was baked on ancient warriors’ shields...and that the word “ketchup” comes from the Chinese “ki-tsiap,” meaning “fish sauce”?

Many of the book’s revelations run counter to widely held beliefs: For instance, Viking burials typically did not involve a ship set ablaze at sea...tall buildings were not the first structures to be called “skyscrapers”...the original wearers of “loafers” were anything but lazy...and fax transmissions were possible before the American Civil War.

The foreword is by Henry Petroski, author and civil engineering professor at Duke University. "In all the artifacts we read about in this book, we can see the creativity and ingenuity of our human ancestors. Everything was created, invented, and developed for a purpose: Everything is the result of a kind of everyday engineering.

“With its wealth of information and a great deal of food for thought, this is a book that will reward the reader with old memories of things past and with new knowledge of things of today. And like any book worth reading, it will change the way we look at the world and the people who inhabit it and how they themselves have changed it,” Petroski writes.

AN UNCOMMON HISTORY OF COMMON THINGS is a lively and rich read for history buffs, pop culture lovers and all seekers of trivia or little-known lore. Whether dipped into at random or read from cover to cover, this quirky reference book will inform, amuse, astonish — and make one look at everyday things and traditions with a fresh eye.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and book critic who blogs about publishing as the Book Maven. She also hosts an online interview show for PBS affiliate WETA. She has written for The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The Writer and People magazines and has authored several children’s history readers. She lives in Arlington, Va.

John Thompson is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including “Dakotas,” “Almanac of American History,” “America’s Historic Trails” and “Wildlands of the Upper South.” His assignments have taken him to almost every U.S. state and have covered a wide range of natural and historical subjects. He lives in central Virginia.


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