Brief Histories of Everyday Objects
Andy Warner’s Brief Histories of Everyday Objects provides capsule four-page histories of a wide variety of everyday objects. But he also covers more than just “did you know who invented the microwave or the sports bra?”
I previously wrote about the book’s description, but now I’ve read and enjoyed it. The contents are arranged by the likely location where you’d find the objects discussed — kitchen, living room, bathroom, but also coffee shop, office, and grocery store.
History is tricky. A prologue explains that Warner did plenty of research but made up the dialogue to make things funnier (and he’s good at comedy). This research means that at times, Warner presents the accepted inventor of, say, the toothbrush but then points out that they were known elsewhere earlier. His skepticism is appreciated, as are the additional, interesting facts he tosses in related to the topic. Some of his tales aren’t about the actual invention of an item but instead tell a more interesting story related to it.
Warner has a fondness for the underdog, frequently pointing out achievements by people who aren’t white men during eras where that meant more challenges to overcome. There are several women who had to fight for their due recognition, such as the inventor of the flat-bottomed paper bag. Other stories feature people making money by serving overlooked audiences.
Alternately, sometimes the stories aren’t about the invention so much as the wacky things those made rich by razor blades or slinkies did with their money. And sometimes someone other than the inventor is the one who gets rich, as when Laszlo Biro’s design for the ballpoint pen is outright stolen.
The reader will learn which products started out intended for another use and the determination of inventors to keep trying or solve problems. Sometimes it seems like chance that everything came together, while other times, the lesson is not to be too focused (or you might die early from self-neglect). Some inventors are taken advantage of, some are jerks, some crazy (tasting chemical experiments is how we discovered artificial sweeteners), some inspirational, some credited by accident, and some make you feel sorry for them.
Brief Histories of Everyday Objects is a terrific read, the kind of popular history full of trivia we used to see more of before the internet.