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Book Review: Really Useful: The Origins of Everyday Things by Joel Levy

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No, no kitchen sinks. Just everything but.

More than a history of stuff ‘n’ nonsense, Joel Levy’s Really Useful: The Origins of Everyday Things is loaded with over a hundred depictions of gadgets, tools, implements, appliances, and odd and ends from the mundane to the modern-day technological miracle. All from A to Z, starting with air conditioning, with its beginnings in the ancient Egyptians’ improvement of evaporative cooling; and closing with the zipper, tracing its late 19th-century development from the “clasp-locker,” designed to lessen back pain caused by bending over to button up boots – Levy describes how the old and disused became the new and improved, and recounts the innovations generated by Eureka!-inspired flashpoints (yes, light bulbs, always a good idea, are also here).

Not just running the alphabetical gamut, Really Useful includes home wares and office supplies of all shapes, from mouse pads to “Cateyes” reflective road markers, and all sizes, from ring pulls to refrigerators. The paper clip, which before becoming an industry producing over 20 billion clips a year, went through a semi-white-knuckler international patent race and saw more improvements and varieties than you would think, or would even think interesting. At the other end of the scale (or more pertinently, the Latin scala for “stairs”) you can read about the introduction of the escalator, ably promoted in 1911 at the British subways by a man with a wooden leg to show the wary public that even a one-legged person can get safely on and off such a new-fangled and dangerous-looking contraption.

Really Useful is also really useful for filling in the gaps of those kinda-sorta bits and pieces of hazy, detail-deficient hearsay and knowledge. If you are familiar with the tidbit of trivia that Monkee Michael Nesmith’s mother invented liquid paper, Levy gives you the low-down, from it’s informal home-made “moonshine still” beginnings for use in a Dallas secretarial pool, to its factory development as “Mistake Out” and multi-million dollar company growth as “Liquid Paper” – an evolution that also saw a little Monkee business.

In addition to providing substance, Levy substantiates with his investigative skills. His compilation also serves as a credible corrective — a how-to turned how-tain’t — giving not only the real poop behind the legendary Victorian plumber Thomas Crapper’s involvement with the development of the toilet, but also conducting a little etymological debunking concerning his name.

For fun or fact, Really Useful is both entertaining and informative, whether you read it page-by-page or flip through and browse – which could startle you with such unexpected but intriguing entries for the two-way mirror, parasol, corkscrew, and pneumatic tire. With something for everyone, this is a book for young and old – you don’t have to be long in the tooth to crave the wisdom behind dentures and dental hygiene. And you need not be wet behind the ears to be curious about washing machines, dishwashers, or drinking fountains.

Furthermore, whether you’re the paper or plastic type (bags, page 52), Really Useful — for a history of everyday objects — could be the greatest thing since sliced bread (page 49)!

Batteries included (page 218).

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