A Spanish gallant in the sixteenth century who followed the contemporary fashion of padding his trunk-hose with quantities of bran was surprised to learn while entertaining ladies that a nail on his chair had opened a hole in his hose, and bran had started trickling out. The ladies laughed. He continued, encouraged, but bran soon was pouring forth. The ladies’ laughter increased. Finally, the gallant noticed the bran, bowed, and left in shame.
“A peaceable person,” wrote Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado in The Discovery of America by the Turks, intended for publication in 1992 for the five-hundredth anniversary of 1492, “can’t take the smallest step or blow the slightest fart without the fifth centenary landing on his head.”
Derived from the French bouder (to pout or sulk), the word boudoir once meant “a place to pout in.” “I have a boudoir, but it has one fault,” the Earl of Chesterfield wrote to a female companion in 1748. “It is so cheerful and so pleasant that there will be no such thing as pouting in it when I am alone.” Its “fault,” he added, could be remedied “by introducing those clumsy, tiresome, and disagreeable people whom I am obliged to admit now and then.”
To avoid the wrath of his lover’s father in Poland, Tadeusz Kościuszko went to America via France in 1776, later helping the colonists win the Battle of Saratoga and construct fortifications at West Point. At the end of the war, he was given U.S. citizenship and the army title of brigadier general.
As a member of a Cherokee delegation to Washington, DC, Sam Houston wore traditional loincloth and blanket to an 1818 meeting with Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, who was offended and chastised Houston for his dress. Twenty-two years later, between terms as president of the Republic of Texas, Houston wore such a blanket to meet Jean Pierre Isidore Alphonse Dubois, comte de Saligny, in Austin.
“Have you been eating candy?” President John F. Kennedy asked his daughter Caroline before a dinner during the Cuban Missile Crisis. She did not reply. He inquired again and was ignored. “Caroline,” the commander in chief said, “answer me. Have you been eating candy—yes, no, or maybe?”
William Gladstone, prime minister of England four times between 1868 and 1894, walked the streets of London at night hoping to rescue prostitutes from their lives of vice. In 1848 he cofounded the Church Penitentiary Society Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women; he would, it is said, offer streetwalkers a place to sleep, protection from their procurers, and a chance to give up their way of life.
The West’s first flushable indoor toilet was designed in 1596 by John Harington, the “saucy godson” of Queen Elizabeth. He published his findings as The Metamorphosis of Ajax, the title a pun on a jakes, slang for a lavatory. Harington was banished from court for the pamphlet but allowed back in 1598, when he installed a water closet in the queen’s Richmond palace.
Statistician Stephen Stigler wrote in 1980, “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.” He identified this as a basic law of eponymy, admitted he was an “outsider to the sociology of science” acting in “flagrant violation of the institutional norms of humility,” and named the law after himself.
At a seance in the White House in 1862, Nettie Colburn Maynard, the medium, recalled that, after losing consciousness, she, channeling Daniel Webster, spoke for over an hour, during which President Abraham Lincoln was assured that the Emancipation Proclamation he had written but not signed would be “the crowning event of his administration and life” and that he needed to “stand firm” against dissenters. Arthur Conan Doyle later speculated that it “may have been one of the most important [moments] in the history of the United States.”
In 1882 the nawab of Bahawalpur ordered a bed from a Parisian manufacturer that included four life-size bronze gurines of naked women with natural hair and movable eyes and arms, holding fans and horsetails. Wires were arranged so downward pressure on the mattress set the gures in motion, fanning and winking at him, while a selection from Gounod’s opera Faust played from a built-in music box.
Yemen’s parliament passed a law setting the minimum age for marriage at seventeen in 2009, having been spurred by the national attention given to the story of ten-year-old Nujood Ali, who was granted a divorce from a thirty-year-old man. The child-marriage legislation passed in parliament but was put on hold by conservative members, citing potential inconsistencies with Sharia law.
The earliest reliable account of human flight concerns a Benedictine monk named Eilmer, who in 1066 fastened wings to his hands and feet, jumped from a tower, and glided more than six hundred feet before falling from the sky and breaking both his legs. He blamed the failure on not having fitted himself with a tail.
In the 1860s editor William Bullock invented a printing press that used continuous-roll paper; it made double-sided copies in mass quantities and transformed publishing. Two years later Bullock got his leg stuck in the press’ belt mechanism while installing one at a Philadelphia newspaper, developed gangrene, underwent an amputation, and died during the operation.