History of Everyday Things

History fascinates me because of the way things interact and connect. History is not a linear thread moving steadily through time. It’s a woven tapestry with threads for war and famine, social progress and new inventions. I like learning the history of everyday things, and thinking of all the missteps along the way. Every day I use an alarm clock, indoor plumbing, and soap before drinking my coffee. But where did these things come from and when did these become standard among the United States lower classes? 

My day starts with an alarm. Striking clocks, which hit a bell or chime at a set time, were invented by Chinese Buddhist monk Yi Xing in the early 700s. Various forms of mechanical striking clock have existed since, and were widely available in 1500s Europe. The United States experienced a serious alarm clock shortage in WW2 as factories that had made them were devoted to the war effort. Alarm clock production was approved to resume before the end of the war to address widespread chronic lateness. 

Once I’m up I use the bathroom. The first pull-chain flush toilet was described in a book by Sir John Harrington in 1596, but the infrastructure of sewage systems was not in place. Early toilets were safety hazards, as they allowed noxious gases to enter the home. In 1775 Scottish mechanic Alexander Cumming invented the S trap, which keeps water over the exit, preventing the rise of gas. This and similar modified trap designs are still in use today.  Indoor flush toilets became widely available to Britons starting in the mid 1800s but would not reach that popularity in the US before the 1890s. 

After that I wash my hands with soap, which humans have been making since at least 2800 BC in ancient Babylon and has been commercially sold in the US on an industrial scale since the 1880s when the Levar Brothers started manufacturing bars of hand washing soap. Their company is today called Unilever, and owns Dove, Axe, and several other brands. The world’s first large scale manufacturing of soap was in the twelfth century Islamic world. Damascus and Aleppo were leading producers. 

My morning then brings me to coffee, an Ethiopian plant recorded in the eleventh century. The earliest coffee drinkers brewed the leaves of the plant as a tea. Ottoman officials began the practice of roasting and grinding the beans to brew rather than the leaves. Coffeehouses proliferated, and became important social sites for intellectual debates, reading poetry, and sharing music in Ottoman (later Turkish) culture. While coffee has a centuries old tradition in Africa and the Middle East, tea was the preferred caffeine of American colonists. High tarrifs on tea imports and the Tea Party protest of 1773 made coffee the choice of American patriots. Tea has remained a second choice since. 

Every day is an opportunity to learn about history, and how interconnected the world is. My day starts with a Chinese Buddhist clock, a British and Scottish invented toilet, a Babylonian and Islamic wash solution, and an Ethiopian and Turkish beverage. Every day, my life is better than it otherwise could be because of countless unknown artisans and inventors. I may be an American who’s never left my country, but I can recognize the positive impact other cultures have had on mine. 

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One thought on “History of Everyday Things

  1. I remember when I took an interest in things we used today that have their roots in Arabia for example our writing system for numbers. Hindu-Arabic numerals replaced Roman numerals. Also, did anyone wonder about the origins of the words algebra and algorithm? There was a famous Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi and it’s from “al-Khwarizmi” that the word algorithm comes from. He wrote the book al-Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-jabr wal-muqābala, where “al-jabr” is the source of the word algebra.

    Another interesting note. One early British toilet company was Thomas Crapper & Co…..No shit 🙂


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