There’s More to Thimbles Than You Think

The history of thimbles goes way back – farther than you might expect. It is theorized that ten thousand years ago, people used press stones for sewing. The practice marked the beginning of an extensive history of thimbles used for many practices.

Explorers found the earliest known thimble in a dignitary’s tomb in the form of a ring, dating from the Han Dynasty in ancient China.

Some theorize that many ancient cultures did not use thimbles for sewing, but instead used leather or cloth finger guards.

An exquisite sterling thimble with a scenic design in amazing condition. The scenic design includes a series of buildings running along the lower portion.

An exquisite sterling thimble with a scenic design in amazing condition. The scenic design includes a series of buildings running along the lower portion.

Where do the typical indents on a thimble come from? These dimples are called ‘knurlings’ and were originally made by hand. They’re now imprinted by a machine. It’s easy to tell if a thimble was made before the 1850s because the indents will be uneven.

Funnily enough, thimbles have been used for much more than sewing:

One superstition states that if you have three thimbles given to you, you will never be married.

  • The practice of “thimble-knocking” was done by Victorian teachers, who would tap their students on the head with the thimble if they acted out of turn.
  • Some used thimbles to measure alcohol. Have you ever heard the phrase “just a thimbleful”? The phrase implies just a small amount, although the true thimbleful thimble was larger than a regular thimble and formed to sit flat on a table without wobbling.
  • The “Sailor’s Palm” thimble sits on the hand instead of a finger, made to protect hands while sewing the coarse fabric required for sails. Earlier fabrics and needles were more crude, making the “Sailor’s Palm” necessary for protecting the hands of those sewing the sails.
  • In the 17th century, betrothed couples used thimbles in place of engagement rings as a practical item that the woman could use before the marriage. After the wedding, the man cut off the rim of the thimble, meant to be worn as a ring. (There are debates on whether this practice is a myth.)

A sterling silver thimble with an intricate floral design.

One of the highest-selling thimbles, a Meissen porcelain thimble made around 1740, sold for $18,000 USD in 1979. Fifteen years later, another Meissen bearing a coat of arms sold for 26,000 GBP.

Clearly, for everyday objects, thimbles have a lot of hidden history.

Do you own any vintage thimbles?

Moving Images and Phenakistoscopes

It’s hard to go online these days without finding at least one cat GIF. But what did those poor pre-internet souls do without instant moving pictures to entertain them?

(For those who don’t know, a GIF is a term for a moving graphic file, like a short soundless movie clip. The official term is “Graphics Interchange Format”.)

That’s where the phenakistoscope (try saying that five times fast) comes in.

The phenakistoscope – also spelled ‘phenakistiscope’ or ‘phenakitiscope’ – was a circular device with a handle, used to animate illustrations, like one of those little books where you flip through to make the drawings move.

It's a gif AND a phenokistoscope. How meta is that? (via the Library of Congress)

It’s a gif AND a phenokistoscope. How meta is that? (via the Library of Congress)

Who knows what it is that makes us so amused by simple moving images, but it appears to always have been the case.

Two people invented this device in the same year: 1832.

Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau first created the device and named it the phenakistoscope, while Austrian Simon von Stampfer created the similarly-structured ‘stroboscope’ in the same year.

The jungle phenakistoscope in motion.

The jungle phenakistoscope in motion.

The basic structure of the phenakistoscope uses two discs on one axis. The first disc has slots around its edge while the second has the drawings laid out in their pattern of movement. One had to view the tool in a mirror through the first disc’s slots to see the pictures move. Only two years later did William George Horner invent the zoetrope, which didn’t require a mirror and allowed more than one person to view the moving pictures simultaneously.

The phenakistoscope, of course, eventually led to the real ‘moving pictures’, or movies. It established a principle of motion recognized by physicists such as Isaac Newton, which had never before been put into practice. The phenakistoscope inadvertently led to bigger things.

And phenakistoscope art is just as much fun to look at today.

This post by Wired shows some great GIFs of the pieces. Some of them are true works of art. Which one is your favorite?


A good discussion of surrounding topics

Summary of phenakistoscopes

Instructional phenakistoscope

Can we just worship Wikipedia already


The Inverted Jenny Stamp

The Inverted Jenny was one of the great stamp collecting occurrences in history. The stamp shows a plane called a ‘Jenny’ surrounded by a red border, but that’s not what’s unusual.

The misprint? The plane is upside-down.

The story started when the United States Post Office decided to dedicate a stamp to recent airmail trials via the Jenny planes in 1918.

At the steep price of 24 cents a stamp (your 12 oz. morning latte would cost roughly the same amount today), people weren’t exactly fighting to buy them. Other stamps at the time cost three cents each.

An intuitive and lucky stamp collector named William T. Robey, who kept an eye out for Postal Service misprints, went out the day after the stamps’ release in 1918. When the postal clerk pulled out a sheet of 100 stamps, Robey knew he had hit the jackpot. He bought all 100 despite the hefty price.

Robey sent word to collectors about his find, but when a knock came on his door one day it was not who he expected: postal inspectors had come to buy back the stamps

A rare sheet of "Right Side Up" Inverted Jennys printed last year by the Postal Service to commemorate the famous stamp.

A rare sheet of “Right Side Up” Inverted Jennys printed last year by the Postal Service to commemorate the famous stamp.

Robey politely declined, but the inspectors threatened that the government would come to take back the sheet.

When they left, Robey hid the sheet of stamps under his mattress.

Eager to rid himself of government pressure, Robey sold the sheet for $15,000, not a small amount in 1918. Another collector, Edward H. R. Green, soon snatched up the sheet for $20,000.

Green sold blocks of four and blocks of eight from the sheet, knowing that selling smaller amounts would make the stamps worth more.

Green did not sell all of the stamps. He put one in a locket for his wife, and his wife also accidentally mailed one, which was recovered as the only cancelled Inverted Jenny.

The story goes that one stamp was sucked up by a vacuum cleaner.

Today, these stamps go for anything from $100,000 to $2.9 million for a block of four.

The stamp has been referenced in a number of TV shows, including The Simpsons, thanks to its legend in stamp-collecting circles.

Last year, the Postal Service issued a reprint to commemorate the famous stamp – except this time, an upside-down Jenny was printed. If you’re lucky, you can find one of the 100 sheets printed with a right-side-up Jenny. In this case, the upside-down plane is the norm.


Smithsonian article

The All-Knowing Wikipedia

Everything You Didn’t Know About Coin Design

We use coins constantly, even if half of them disappear into the couch cushions. But think about it — who designed the images on these coins that we’re so familiar with?

Sometimes coins are designed with the artistic qualities in mind – and sometimes not.

In the early 20th century, the nickel, dime, quarter and half dollar all had the same bust design. But soon there was an effort to make coins just as pretty as they were useful.

The 1907 Indian Head gold coin.

The 1907 Indian Head gold coin by Saint-Gaudens.

President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in a private letter in 1904, “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.” He suggested an artist instead of a government employee to redesign the coins to add a little pizzazz.

The designer and sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, had already designed the World’s Columbian Exposition Commemorative Presentation medal. From Roosevelt’s request he designed the $20 double Eagle and the $10 Indian Head gold coins. Many numismatists consider these some of the most beautiful coins produced by the U.S. Mint.

A 1933 double eagle gold coin.

A 1933 double eagle gold coin by Saint-Gaudens.

The process for U.S. coins starts with an outline by Congress of what the coins should look like, as well as the metal they’ll be struck from. The Mint then asks its artists to create the described designs.

Some methods of designing look quite impressive to an outside observer.

The sculpted design, or galvano, for the Kennedy half dollar was over two feet in diameter!

In fact, much of coin designing involves a method of sculpting. Once a design is sketched out, it’s then transferred to a large scale model sculpted in layers of plaster or epoxy. The U.S. Mint in Philadelphia uses both clay and high-tech computers; designers often start out in clay then make small changes on their computers.

The plaster design of Saint-Gauden's eagle (via user Wehwalt on Wikimedia Commons)

The plaster design of Saint-Gauden’s eagle (via user Wehwalt on Wikimedia Commons)

Once the artist’s renderings have been sent in, they are reviewed for factors such as historical accuracy. A final design is chosen and tweaked by the artist. Although the Mint has been known to change the design immediately before putting it to production without the artist’s permission, usually everything goes smoothly. A new, shiny coin has been produced to add to the collection of coins under couch cushions.

Next time you rifle through your change, take a moment to appreciate the work a designer has gone through to make those coins pleasing to the eye.


A Visit to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia

Basic Steps of Coin Design

A Useful Summary of Coin Design History

Diamonds Weren’t Always Forever

Diamonds are forever. Therefore, diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

After all, when I get the mean reds the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and have breakfast at Tiffany’s.

In only the past century, diamonds have become synonymous with love and commitment. Before that, many other gems were used to “insure” that marriage was in the wearer’s future. However, they were not expected as a part of every engagement.

A pendant with a lovely diamond, perfect for marriage-insurance purposes.

A pendant with a lovely diamond perfect for marriage-insurance purposes.

How did diamonds take over so recently, and why did engagement rings go from promises of insurance to an expected tradition?

Engagement rings served as a placeholder until wedding rings were to be worn. The use of betrothal rings was adopted from the Romans by the Catholic Church in the 13th century, and two hundred years later, the first documented diamond engagement ring was presented to Mary of Burgundy. The Victorians gave each other “regards” rings with the recipient’s birthstone. It was a practice and status symbol of the upper classes who could afford two rings.


A cartoon illustrating the Breach of Promise.

In the States, “Breach of Promise to Marry” laws allowed women to sue men for breaking off their engagement. If the relationship had involved premarital sex (and roughly half of them in the early twentieth century did), then the woman’s reputation was at stake. Since virginity was a huge factor in a woman’s overall marriageability in society’s eyes, a broken engagement had the potential to ruin the rest of her life.

Starting in the 1930s, a number of states began taking the Breach of Promise out of the books. Almost immediately, diamond sales began gaining ground. Since many women could no longer sue for their reputations back, they needed insurance instead.

(via 1791 Rings, Creative Commons)

(via 1791 Rings, Creative Commons)

This insurance came in the form of a small, sparkly piece of jewelry with brilliant marketing.

Frances Gerety coined the phrase “A diamond is forever” in 1947. As a copywriter working for De Beers, the company that controlled the world’s supply of rough diamonds, she and publicity counterpart Dorothy Dignam spearheaded the campaign that put diamonds in demand. The company’s goal was “to create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage (felt) compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring.” While Gerety created wordy, sentimental copy outlining the diamond’s importance, Dignam wrote letters to newspapers describing the diamonds the Hollywood elite wore.

In one of Gerety’s advertisements, she writes that diamonds have “earth-born firelight.”

This chart shows diamond imports per year - notice the huge spike right before 1950.

This chart shows diamond imports per year – notice the huge spike right before 1950.

The average consumer began to see diamonds everywhere, from movies to the news to advertisements in magazines. Soon, engagement rings did not only serve as a placeholder or insurance. They became a status symbol with deeply sentimental value.

Today, 75% of American brides receive diamond engagement rings. Although it is no longer seen as “virginity insurance,” many couples do not consider themselves truly engaged unless a diamond ring has changed hands. Gerety and Dignam did their jobs by not only putting diamonds on the map, but making them the norm.

…If you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it.

How a Shipwreck Changed History: Part I

In 1784, a Spanish warship called El Cazador sank to the bottom of the ocean…

…And caused the United States to double in size, forever changing history.

It all concludes with coins at the bottom of the ocean, but let’s start at the beginning.

The Territory

In the 1700s, Spain won the battle over control of North American territories by gaining the biggest plot of land: almost a million square miles in North America, the Louisiana Territory.

It was a big prize, but the port of New Orlean’s economy started to fail in the 1760s and ’70s and paper currency began to lose its value.
It didn’t help that scheming New Orleans revolutionaries created counterfeit bills that were useless to the Spanish Crown.

A Spanish four dollar bill for "The United Colonies", issued by the U.S. Continental Congress.

A Spanish four dollar bill for “The United Colonies”, issued by the U.S. Continental Congress.

Spain had to come up with a plan to appease the colonists in Louisiana, especially those near the vital shipping port of New Orleans. Carolus III, Bourbon King of Spain, made a key decision to exchange paper bills for silver coins, which would provide actual value to their currency.

Carolus III would send the coins to the New World, supplying New Orleans with a solution for the troubled economy.

El Cazador means “The Hunter” in Spanish.

The Plan in Action

The ship El Cazador was sent off from Spain, destination Vera Cruz, Mexico. After stocking up on more than 400,000 Spanish Silver Reales in Mexico in January 1784, the ship left for the New Orleans port.

Who knows what happened next: maybe a strong storm or pirates took over, but either way El Cazador never reached the shore of the New World, instead finding itself at the bottom of the ocean.

The ship was declared missing in June of the next year.

The loss was devastating to Spain and Louisiana’s economy, and though Spain dispatched more coins, the Spanish Crown began to wonder at the value of the Louisiana territory. They were never able to stabilize its economy.

The Territory Changes Hands

In 1800, the king of Spain finally agreed to give up Louisiana to France. But France was also having economic trouble, and soon afterward, Napoleon sold the territory to Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase.

The shipwreck of El Cazador led the Louisiana Purchase, the treaty that doubled the size of the U.S. and changed the fate of the world forever.

There’s a Part II to this story, centuries later in 1993, when a vessel named “Mistake” found itself in the same waters as the shipwrecked El Cazador.

But that’s another tale to tell: don’t forget to check back for the story next week!


How Stuff Works

El Cazador

Hats off to you, Wikipedia

How the Civil War Caused the Ban on Private Coins

Once upon a time, some US citizens renounced government-issued coins and decided to make their own.

Between 1861 and 1864, Civil War tokens were privately minted and distributed in the United States, before the government set stricter standards on coins as currency.

If privately-made coins seem odd from the modern perspective, it is even more strange to consider that in 1862, Americans hoarded coins with gold and silver, as well as copper-nickel pennies. As a result, millions of government-issued coins began to vanish from circulation. The craftiest private businesses decided to capitalize on this and started making private tokens.

Those that imitated the cent sometimes had the very small word NOT over ONE CENT. How’s that for the ultimate fine print?

These tokens were made and used mostly in the Northeast and Midwest. They had huge variety in design, though many faithfully imitated the copper-nickel cent.

A Civil War store card

A Civil War store card

Three main types of Civil War tokens were created:

  • Patriotic: These displayed a patriotic symbol or slogan, most of which were pro-Union.
  • Store cards: Merchants made store cards to promote their business, with one side spelling out the name and location of the private business.
  • Sutler tokens: Similar to store cards but instead displaying the name of an army unit. A sutler was a merchant who ran a kind of general store for the military. Most sold their items from transportable tents or the backs of wagons, which allowed them to travel where the army was. These are the rarest of the civil war tokens.

The Mint Director at the time, James Pollock, thought these privately-made coins were illegal, but at the time no law prohibited private coins not in imitation of US coins.

But eventually, the US government had had enough of this private coinage. On April 22, 1864 the United States determined a specific composition and weight for cents and two-cent pieces and declared only those approved by the government to be legal, two years after the Civil War tokens’ beginning. On June 8 of the same year, another law forbade the private minting of gold coins.

At the time of the ban there were roughly 25 million private Civil War tokens in circulation. After they stopped being useful, they became a coin collector’s dream.

What do you think of these privately-made tokens? If you made your own tokens, what would you put on them?


Silver & Gold Hoarding

Civil War Tokens

A Century of Lawmaking

5 Classic Cupid Symbols

It’s not even close to Valentine season, but as it turns out, Cupid gives meaning to far more than cheesy cards and boxes of chocolates.

It all starts with the cameo.

Though the most popular cameo style today features the profile of a woman (popularized by Queen Victoria), prior to the Victorian era, numerous other styles and themes appeared on the cameo.

In older times, these images were often thought to have a kind of magic and were often given as a love token. So it makes sense that the most powerful images portrayed Eros, or Cupid, the god of love.

Some say that whatever Cupid holds or does in the image gives a hidden message. Fun Valentine activity: give your significant other a Cupid card, tell them it contains a hidden message, and watch them sweat.

A rare enamel patch box, available here.

A rare enamel patch box showing Cupid riding a lion, available here.

But for those who want to know what Cupid is up to, here’s your handy guide to five classic Cupid symbols:

1. Cupid with a rose means a secret love. Cupid often carries a rose in mythology, which comes from the Roman tradition of hanging a rose over a conference table as a symbol of secrecy. In legend, Cupid gives the god of silence, Harpocrates, a rose so he will keep the secrets of Venus.

2. Cupid riding a lion says love conquers all. This is one of the oldest cameo images, and it has lasted to this day. Cupid is also often shown riding a dolphin, which is possibly a metaphor for Apollo’s love for Daphne.

3. A blindfolded Cupid suggests “love is blind.”

4. Cupid in chains means “love-bound”.

5. Cupid shown with a bow in his hand means he is ready for battle in the war of love.

Bonus symbol: Cupid isn’t always used as a symbol of love. You can find him on pieces of mourning jewelry leaning against an urn or column. When someone is in mourning, people will often ask, “How are you holding up?” So it is with Cupid, literally holding himself up with the urn or column. A sorrowful Cupid is shown pensively standing in a somber pose, with a cameo background of black onyx or another dark material. The piece might also have pearls to represent tears.

Cupid on a Dolphin

Cupid on a Dolphin

Cupid has always been a popular subject of not only cameos, but also of jewelry and various other items. Archaeologists found a 2,000-year-old carving of Cupid in Jerusalem three years ago. The carving shows Cupid with an upside-down torch, possibly symbolizing the fading of life.

Next time you see Cupid on a Valentine’s Day card or a piece of jewelry, consider the picture’s details. They may mean more than you think.

And if you’re given a card with Cupid holding an upside-down torch, somebody doesn’t like you.


Valentine’s day

Mythological Messages

2,000-Year-Old Cupid Uncovered

5 Old-Fashioned Sayings that Should Be Brought Back to the English Language

Old fashioned sayings are the cat’s pajamas.  But many of us have forgotten them, replacing older sayings with newer ones. You know “Kicked the bucket” and “When pigs fly”, but have you ever heard “Go pound sand” or “Dollars to donuts”?  Here’s just a small sample of older idiomatic expressions that have been lost or generally forgotten over time:

  • Dollars to donuts

Meaning “definitely” or expressing certainty; you’re so confident that you would bet money on it. This phrase mirrors the older English saying “a pound to a penny”, both referring to the former being worth much more than the latter.

  • Can’t cut the mustard

Someone who isn’t good enough to make it or to participate. “He tried out for the mime convention but he couldn’t cut the mustard.”

  • He doesn’t know if he’s on foot or horseback.

Being very confused. “He went on the roller coaster so many times that he didn’t know if he was on foot or horseback.”

  • Go pound sand

Like “go fly a kite”: telling someone off when you’re upset with them. “Rob stole Matt’s Snuggie so Matt told him to go pound sand.”

  • Whizbang

A resounding success, “A whizbang of a speech.” Okay, so this isn’t an idiom – but isn’t it a quality word? Whizbang!


Whizbang April 1921

What are some of your favorite old sayings?

It’s Not a Science Fiction Robot: What Is It?

It looks like something straight out of a science fiction movie: an alien emerges from the deep sea, a huge, robotic figure bearing news of an underwater world and ready to take over land-based Earth.

Believe it or not, the suit is not science fiction. It’s an atmospheric diving suit (ADS), a human-shaped diving suit that creates a regular internal pressure for the wearer and allows them to deep-sea dive without being crushed by the pressure.

The man shown in the picture is named Chester E. MacDuffee (sometimes spelled MacDuffy or MacDuffie), an inventor in the early 1900s who took this proud picture with his deep-sea diving suit in 1911.

MacDuffee Diving Suit

For a diving suit, the hook hand is pretty impressive.

This particular suit could reach a water depth of 65 meters (214 feet), proven when the suit was put to the test in 1915 in Long Island Sound. The most innovative part of MacDuffee’s creation is its ball bearings used to give the joints movement. The suit is not watertight but instead has a pump that pumps water from the leg section into the sea. Then the used air, taken from the air supplied from the surface, expands into the suit so the diver can breathe.

Unfortunately MacDuffee’s design was not very successful, but he no doubt contributed to shaping ADS’s superior designs, helping them become what they are today. The most recent ADS design reached a new record when in 2006 the Chief Navy Diver Daniel Jackson reached 2,000 feet deep in the ADS 2000.