10 Interesting Backstories Behind Common Things

From refrigerator to the humble t-shirt, many things we use have an interesting history or original story of their own. Some of these things were invented for reasons that are entirely different from what we are using them for now. Though these stories are mostly trivia, some of them are quite interesting and can be great for starting conversations. So, here are some of these backstories behind common things we use in our life.

1. Coin banks are often shaped liked pigs because long ago the jars in which people saved money were made with a clay called “pygg.” The jars came to be known as “pygg jars,” which the English potters misunderstood and made the containers in the shape of a pig.

Piggy Bank
Image Source: wikipedia, GeorgHH

Pygg is an orange-colored clay that was commonly used in the Middle Ages. As metal was expensive, kitchenware was usually made from pygg which was a cheaper alternative. Whenever people had an extra coin, they would drop it in one of the pygg jars for later use. Early English had different sounds than it does today, and back then the word pygg would have been pronounced “pug.” As the language changed, the pronunciation of “y” changed from “u” to “i” and thus “pygg” changed to “pig.” As it happens, the Old English word for pig was “picga,” and over the next hundreds of years the words “pygg” and “picga” came to be pronounced the same way. The Europeans soon forgot about the clay, and 19th-century English potters began shaping pygg banks as the animal pig.(source)

2. Refrigerators have magnetic doors because, before 1956, many children suffocated to death after hiding themselves inside them during play. The early refrigerators could only be opened with a latch from the outside. 

Old and New Refrigerator Doors
Image Source: Shoval, homedepot

By design, refrigerators are made to be airtight, and early designs used a latch that meant the doors could only be opened from the outside. It was not uncommon for children to play in abandoned machines like refrigerators and washing machines. That usually meant that they would get trapped inside the refrigerators if no one found them and opened the door. Several children died due to suffocation because of limited oxygen.

Initially, people were asked not to abandon refrigerators and to detach the doors of the ones they didn’t use. During the late 1950s, people would look for abandoned refrigerators to detach the doors and break the locks. However, children still died in the refrigerators that weren’t found. In 1956, the US passed the Refrigerator Safety Act which was applied to all manufacturers in the country. It was also largely responsible for adopting the magnetic mechanism for doors.(source)

3. Porn got the name “blue” film or movie because, in the early days when it was illegal to sponsor porn, the video crew had to use old faded film purchased at a cheap price. These faded films had a blue tint giving whatever’s recorded on them the same color. 

Blue Screen
Image source: giphy

There are a few theories why porn was referred to as a “blue” film. During a time when porn was not openly accepted by society, local theaters playing porn videos had to use posters that were blue and white rather than black and white so as not attract the wrong clientele. It is also believed that producers and porn makers had to resort to cheaper ways to create color videos from a black and white film, so, they would give it a bluish tint. Another theory is that the films themselves became faded as they got old, acquiring a blue tint.(source)

4. The t-shirt was invented in 1904 and was marketed for bachelors who couldn’t sew or replace buttons. 

Sailors in Earlier Version of T-Shirts
Image Source: flickr

The evolution of the t-shirt started as early as the 19th century as undergarments. It was adopted by miners and stevedores as convenient clothing for working in hot environments. Between the 1898 Spanish-American War and 1913, the US Navy began issuing cotton undershirts with crew necks and short sleeves for sailors to wear under their uniform. In 1904, the Cooper Underwear Company began advertising their new product aimed at men with no wives or sewing skills, with the slogan, “No safety pins — no buttons — no needle — no thread.” In the 1950s, the shirts became quite popular after Marlon Brando wore one in A Street Car Named Desire, giving it the status as a fashionable, stand-alone outerwear.(1, 2)

5. Beer bottles are brown because brown glass blocks UV rays keeping it fresh. However, a shortage of brown glass during WWII forced brewers to use clear glass, and high-quality brewers chose to use green glass to distinguish themselves. 

Beer Bottles
Image Source: pixabay

During the 16th century, brewers started experimenting using glass bottles for beer, and by the end of 17th century, commercial bottling began. Brewers found that using glass bottles kept the beer fresh, but if it was left out in the sunlight, it went bad. Scientists soon discovered it was because UV rays from the sun break down the alpha acids in hops and reacted with the sulfur in the beer. However, during the Second World War, the brewers had to forfeit brown glass for their country and switch back to clear glass. To stand apart from the common brewers, high-quality brewers started using green bottles. Soon it became a status symbol for many brewing companies, though it doesn’t offer as much protection from UV rays as brown glass does.(source)

6. The buttons for men’s shirts are usually on the right, while for women they are on the left. This was done because men needed quick access to their weapon and the servants who dressed wealthy women found it easier to do their job with the buttons on the left. 

Men and Women, Buttons
Image Source: nordstrom, brooksbrothers

There are several theories about why the button sides are different in men’s and women’s shirts. According to one of them, it was because the clothing for wealthy men often involved weaponry. Having the buttons on the right and the flap on the left gave easy access when they needed to bring out a weapon in a hurry. For women, one theory suggests that being mostly right-handed, women often held their babies in their left arms, leaving the right hand free. It would make it easier for them to open their shirt flap on the right for breastfeeding.

Also, in the early days, women rode horses side-saddled to their left. So, having the dress buttons to the left and open flap to the right minimized how much wind flew into their shirts. There is also another outlandish theory, that Napoleon ordered women’s shirts to be buttoned on the opposite side of men’s because women would mimic his hand-in-waistcoat pose.(source)

7. The term “genuine leather” isn’t trying to reassure you that the product was made of real leather, but it actually means that it’s the lowest quality of all products made from real leather. 

Genuine Leather
Image Source: tokyobags

The leather products you find in the mall stores or lower-priced stores generally don’t have leather that lasts long. There are two types of leather that may be labeled as “genuine leather,” even though they are not “true” organic leathers. One is bonded leather or reconstituted leather which is manufactured by shredding leftover organic leather and bonded with a glue into a fiber sheet. Another is bicast leather. It is made of split leather that’s laminated with a layer of polyurethane and then embossed. So, though these “genuine leathers” do have real leather in them, they are not completely made of leather.(1, 2)

8. Treadmills were originally invented for punishment, and to put idle prisoners to use by using their muscle power on a giant wheel that grinds grains. 

Treadmill Prison Punishment
Image Source: cbc

Treadmills were invented by an English engineer, Sir William Cubitt, who was also the son of a miller. When he noticed idle prisoners at Bury St. Edmundsgaol, he proposed that they should be put to work and their muscle power harnessed. Cubitt’s treadmills had horizontal slats fixed to a horizontal, rotating axis. The prisoners were required to step upwards on those slats as if walking on an endless staircase. In a day, they had to work for six hours or more, which meant climbing as many as 5,000 to 14,000 vertical feet (1.5 to 4 kilometers). The machines were also used to pump water or ventilate mines. They remained in use until the 19th century. In the 1960s, William Staub, a mechanical engineer, developed the first affordable, household treadmill that can be used for aerobic exercise.(source)

9. The expiration dates on bottled water are for the bottle, not the water in it. 

Water Bottle Expiration Date
Image Source: videojet

In 1987, New Jersey state law required that the packaging for all food products should display an expiration date of two years or less from their date of manufacture. Since water doesn’t exactly expire, the bottled water manufacturers simply started using a two-year expiration date. As most companies use the same machines used for manufacturing bottled sodas or drinks to manufacture bottled water, it was just easier to put the expiration date instead of having separate machines. So, as long as the bottles are sealed, the water inside them is good.(source)

10. The uniforms for police officers are blue because they were originally surplus US Army uniforms from the Civil War. 

NYPD Blue Police Uniforms
Image Source: Hatch & Co., realclearpolitics

Unlike in the UK, where police uniforms were introduced as early as 1828, it took a while to adopt a standardized uniform in the US. A centralized, municipally-managed police force wasn’t established in the US until the 1830s. Law enforcement consisted of volunteer watchmen, constables, and sheriffs whose income came from the warrants they served. Many of the new police weren’t enthusiastic about uniforms as they felt they would be ridiculed by the public. However, in 1854, NYPD became the first police force to introduce uniforms in the US. The navy blue uniforms that many police departments initially adopted were surplus uniforms from the Civil War. By the 20th century, the uniform underwent many changes to become the button-up shirts now used.(source)

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