The Quirky Histories Behind 20 Everyday Objects You Have In Your Home

Look around you – your house is full of stuff. There are useful items, decorative pieces, personal mementos. You, of course, know where you bought them and why. But what you might not know is how these objects came to be in the first place. As it turns out, lots of the normal – and unique – items in our homes have quirky, interesting histories. Here are 20 of the most peculiar tales.

20. Silly Putty

World War II inspired countless inventors to do what they do best. For James Wright, that meant trying to develop synthetic rubber. So, he experimented with boric acid, which he dropped into silicone oil. He certainly made something – a polymer that could bounce. But it was no replacement for rubber, so it gathered dust on the proverbial shelf for several years.

During the 1950s, though, Peter Hodgson got his hands on the slimy substance and saw a lot of potential. The marketing expert re-branded Wright’s invention as Silly Putty and sold it as a fun children’s toy. It’s still packaged that way today, but the boric-silicone combination can also stabilize shaky furniture legs, pick up lint and provide a bit of stress relief with every squeeze.

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19. Stainless steel

Here’s another wartime innovation that you’ll find in just about every modernized home in the 21st century – stainless steel. This material came to be during the World War I effort. In 1913, Harry Brearly toiled in Sheffield, England, to improve the rifle barrels used by soldiers on the front lines.

Brearly combined iron with chromium, and realized the addition of the latter made his metal rust-proof. Since then, stainless steel has served seemingly endless uses, both in and out of wartime. It’s also a domestic must-have. As of 2020, roughly 75 per cent of homeowners said in a survey that they planned to outfit their kitchens with stainless steel appliances.

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18. Dixie Cups

It’s hard to imagine now, but communal drinking cups used to be a staple in public spaces and railroad stations. Lawrence Luellen, a Boston-based inventor, wanted to get rid of these so-called “tin dippers.” He had an inkling that they promoted the spread of disease, and a 1908 article by a biologist confirmed his suspicions.

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That exposé on communal vessels hit the presses just after Luellen had patented and created single-use paper drinking cups. And, as news spread that tin dippers could pass disease from person to person, his invention became essential. Nowadays, you might have Dixie Cups in your bathroom, but you’ll certainly find them at the dentist’s office and next to the office water cooler.

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17. Baths

It took a while for people to get on board with bathing. The ancient Greeks kept clean by standing under spouts of water to rinse post-exercise. Then, from the 16th to 18th centuries, medical experts advised against sitting in a warm bath. They believed a soak would open the pores, allowing infections to easily invade the body.

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But the Victorians brought baths back to the forefront. They admired the ancient Greeks to the point that they picked up their old-school habits. Soon enough, indoor plumbing became a possibility and, by the 1950s, the norm. Postwar homes had – and have – hot water aplenty for steamy showers and soaks.

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16. Brandy

Archaeologists have found evidence of ancient wine production from as early as 8,000 B.C. So, by the time the 16th century rolled around, it had become a popular beverage and bargaining chip for European traders. The only problem was that the booze took up a lot of space on board cargo ships. So, a Dutch trader came up with an ingenious solution.

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The trader realized that water could be removed from wine to ship it more compactly. Upon arrival, distilled H2O could be added to the concentrate, transforming it back into the alcoholic beverage we all know and love. But someone must’ve sipped the “bradwijn” – which means “burned wine” – and realized it tasted pretty good. Eventually, they began calling their creation brandy and you can find it in bars the world over.

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15. Sofa

King Louis XIV had to escape from Paris in 1648 as a civil war broke out in the city. Normally, kings and queens of the era would travel with all of their furniture but, in his rush to flee, the monarch didn’t have time to pack his housewares. So, when he arrived at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, he found himself in an empty house.

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The empty abode might not have been a huge problem, but when Louis eventually welcomed visitors, they had nowhere to sit. The king was mortified that his couriers couldn’t take a load off. As a result, he spent the rest of his life making up for it. The extravagant ruler filled his properties – including the uber-luxurious Palace of Versailles – with comfortable furniture, including sofas.

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14. Ramen Noodles

Japan faced a hunger crisis in the wake of World War II, so the U.S. sent wheat flour to help the island nation. The Americans envisioned the Japanese turning it into bread. Inventor Momofuku Ando, though, couldn’t imagine anyone in his noodle-loving country choosing a loaf over their traditional fare. So, he set out to transform the starch into a non-perishable, cheap and tasty version of everyone’s favorite meal.

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Ando had struggled to come up with a method for preserving noodles that maintained their flavor. Then, one night, he watched his wife preparing dinner. Into a pan of hot tempura oil, he tossed a noodle and found that the starchy strands instantly dehydrated. The method also created little perforations, which allowed the noodles to quickly re-cook. With that, he invented instant ramen and, in the 1970s, Cup Noodles. Since then, these instant meals have become a phenomenon, moving billions of units every year.

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13. Nikes

In the 1970s Bill Bowerman coached runners at an Oregon track, where the surface material was about to change to something artificial and without traction. Normally, athletes would wear spiked shoes to give them grip on slippery turf. The hard faux covering, though, made using them impossible. So, Bowerman thought about how to fix it with a new kind of footwear.

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An epiphany came to Bowerman at breakfast one morning at the end of 1971. His wife, Barbara, decided to pull out the waffle maker they had received as a wedding gift. As she prepared their meal, her husband realized something – the pattern on the iron would help running shoes grip the new track. From there, a lighter sneaker – one that made runners faster – was born, and the coach called them Nikes.

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12. Corkscrew

In the 1600s, winemakers began to use a new type of seal for their bottles – cork. As such, people got creative in the ways in which they could unseal their grape-based libations. Soldiers eventually realized that the so-called “gun worms” that came with their muskets could do the trick quite well.

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The soldiers typically used their screw-shaped gun worms to fish out misfired ammunition. The hand-powered device behaved like a drill, slowly boring into the bullet, getting enough of a grip so they could pull the lead out of the barrel. And it’s this technique that may have inspired the first corkscrews. The invention has, of course, remained a mainstay in wine lovers’ cabinets since their creation in the 17th century.

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11. Silly String

Robert P. Cox and Leonard A. Fish – a chemist and an inventor, respectively – set out in 1972 to build a device that could create an instant cast around broken bones. They envisioned packaging foam into an aerosol can that medical professionals could spray over fractures. The pair mastered the first part of the equation easily enough. But they had to test 500 different nozzles to find the right one for building casts.

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As the pair experimented, Fish found one nozzle in particular had an interesting effect on the foam. It sent strands flying up to 30 feet across the test space. With that, he and Cox realized that their sprayer could have an alternate use as a children’s toy. So they lightened up the recipe and added color to it. Then the company Wham-O licensed it under the name Silly String.

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10. Chainsaw

Fair warning: Squeamish readers may want to skip over the chainsaw’s origin story. Up until the 18th century, doctors could only deliver babies through the birth canal – the caesarean section didn’t exist yet. So, they had to intervene when delivery became difficult and babies couldn’t pass all the way through. In that situation, physicians would use a small knife to remove bone from the pelvis. This procedure ‒ done without anesthetic ‒ made more room for the newborn.

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Then, in 1780, a pair of doctors decided to make this procedure faster and easier. They then came up with the chainsaw – a hand-cranked blade on a chain. The successful device went on to make waves in the medical community and beyond. It became a swift tool in other bone-cutting procedures before people realized how fast it could cut through other materials, including wood. Now we have even more powerful motorized versions today, with which people prune trees.

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9. Bubble wrap

Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes had an idea – they wanted to invent a textured wallpaper that’d appeal to the artsy Beat generation. So, in 1957, they sandwiched two plastic shower curtains together and pushed them through a sealing machine. The pair, however, didn’t like the resulting material, a clear, bubble-filled sheet.

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Chavannes and Fielding, though, didn’t bin their creation. Instead, they worked through multiple patents to find other uses for the bouncy, bubbly material. They tried it out as insulation for greenhouses, for example, but that didn’t quite fit the bill. It wasn’t until 1960 that the pair adapted their invention for packaging… And that’s when they found huge success with their one-time wallcovering, now known as bubble wrap.

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8. Play-Doh

A company called Kutol had one product at the forefront of their offerings. It was a soft, dough-like compound that homeowners could press against their wallpaper to remove soot. Before the 1950s, this was a handy resource to have, as most homes relied on coal for heat, and it left dark residue on their decor.

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In the 1950s, however, people started to use electricity to heat their homes, so they no longer needed the soot-removing compound. Kay Zufall, a preschool teacher and sister-in-law to Kutol’s head, came up with the perfect solution. She suggested selling the nontoxic dough as a children’s toy called Play-Doh. Obviously, the company listened to her idea and, since then, have sold a whopping three billion cans of the stuff.

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7. Car air fresheners

When a frustrated milkman struck up a conversation with Julius Samann, he had no idea his complaints would inspire an invention. He told Samann that he couldn’t get the smell of spoiled dairy products out of his car. But it just so happened he was venting his frustration to a chemist who spent time studying alpine tree aromas in Canada’s lush forests.

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Samann relied on his tree aroma knowledge to come up with a solution for the milkman. He started by infusing scented tree oils onto paper. Then, in 1954, he patented a tree-shaped version of this simple invention, an air freshener that dangles from a vehicle’s rear-view mirror. Nowadays, that Alpine-inspired air freshener comes in more than 60 scents and over one billion of them have been sold around the world.

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6. Chewing gum

From the Central American sapodilla tree comes chicle, a milky latex material. In the 19th century, Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna tasked New York-based inventor Thomas Adams with making something out of the substance. Namely, the leader hoped his country’s native trees could produce an alternative to rubber.

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Adams tried to make a rubber replacement from the chicle but nothing worked, so Santa Anna ditched the idea altogether. The inventor, though, didn’t give up on his Central American material. Instead, he thought that the natural latex-like substance would make the perfect chewing gum. For roughly 70 years, companies imported chicle to make the sticky stuff until synthetic alternatives replaced it in the mid-20th century.

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5. Forks

The Byzantine Empire, which lasted from 330 to 1453, saw its population dining with forks. Somehow, though, opinions then shifted wildly when it came to the pronged piece of flatware. As Amy Azzarito, a design historian, explained to the Independent in 2020, “This thing that we interact with every single day of our lives was once deemed immoral and unhygienic.”

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However, that all changed during the Italian Renaissance, which sparked in the 1300s and lasted until the 1500s. At that time, people started eating sugar-and-syrup-soaked dried fruit for dessert. Eating those treats with their hands created a sticky mess, so back came the fork – and it has remained on our tables ever since.

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4. Treadmill

If you’re not a fan of running, the treadmill may seem like a torture device. As it turns out, its origins trace back to exactly that. The Romans invented the treadwheel in the 1st century A.D. as a way for humans to lift huge objects. Men would walk on a hamster wheel-type apparatus, which would generate the power required to move something much larger than they could with brute strength alone.

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Fast-forward to the Victorian period in the U.K., which lasted the duration of Queen Victoria’s reign, from 1837 until 1901. During that time, the treadwheel was used as a punishment for those sentenced to perform penal labor. Similar mechanisms informed the inner workings of the modern-day treadmill, which people use to work out.

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3. High heels

During the 15th century, Persian soldiers made a pretty surprising choice when it came to footwear. Rather than donning the combat boots we come to expect from military personnel today, they wore high heels. Yes, they chose to wear such elevated shoes because the stretched-out sole helped them clip into their stirrups.

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The Persians brought their fancy footwear to Europe, where men started wearing them first. They liked how their boosted shoes made them seem taller and more intimidating. It wasn’t until the late 15th century that women switched to heels – and they were seriously high. Venetian women sometimes wore them 20 inches tall, relying on their maids to support them as they walked. Fortunately, heels have gotten a bit more sensible since then.

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2. Listerine

Jordan Wheat Lambert and Dr. Joseph Lawrence created the first commercial antiseptic in 1879. To celebrate, they named it after the first man to perform an antiseptic surgery, Dr. Joseph Lister. The physician’s work had reduced patient mortality, and the product bearing his name ‒ Listerine ‒ would only continue his legacy. The germ-killing solution once helped cure sore throats and heal wounds, among other uses.

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In 1895, though, Listerine became a staple in oral care, wiping out 99.9 percent of germs in its mouthwash form. Today, it remains the most popular dental rinse on the American market, as of 2018. That year, it topped the list of sales for similar products, raking in $354.8 million from hygienic customers in the U.S. alone.

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1. Clock

We have traveled a long road to get to the efficient, easy-access clocks we use today. Ancient civilizations relied on sundials to tell time. Then, in 723, the mechanical clock finally hit the market. Six hundred years later, every town had a big clock of its own to chime and keep residents on schedule.

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Perhaps the most interesting iteration of time keepers pre-personal clocks were the “knocker uppers.” At one time, factory employess paid these people the princely sum of one penny every month to come by, rap on their windows and wake them up for work. Now, we have digital clocks and smartphone alarms to do that job for us.

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