Innovating New Traditions

As Thanksgiving approaches, our thoughts naturally turn to traditions—national traditions like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and our own personal traditions, which in my family means kielbasa and apple pie, going to the local Christmas tree farm, and my family members pretending to be shocked when I decline a serving of carrots for the 28th year in a row. (And, of course, my mother’s mashed potatoes, over which I rhapsodized in a previous post.)

Woodcut of a turkey

Woodcut, The Marchbanks Calendar–November by Harry Cimino. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

We all have traditions, but where did they come from? When we deep-fry the turkey or add a spiral ham to the menu, it may not seem particularly innovative. But the technology behind these yummy traditions had to come from somewhere. While doing some Thanksgiving-inspired Googling, I came across this fun video from History on the invention of deep-fried turkeys, turduckens, and honey baked hams:

While we may not know who invented the deep-fried turkey, we can take a look at Harry Hoenselaar’s patent (#2470078A) for an “apparatus for slicing ham on the bone.” Hoenselaar’s invention was ingeniously created out of various objects found around his home—a pie tin, brackets, a hand drill, and a broom handle, to name a few. The patent application reads:

In the meat industry there is a large market for sliced meats, particularly for ham slices, but the bone construction and the shape of a ham is such that no wholly satisfactory method of slicing it exists. This statement also applies to legs of lamb and other like cuts of meat.

It is an object of the invention to provide a method and a machine for slicing ham and other joints, which are of exceptional efficiency in operation. Another object of the invention is to prepare ham for the market in a new and superior form.

Millions of spiral cut hams are sold every year, so I believe we can safely say that Hoenselaar accomplished what he set out to do—create an “efficient” ham.

Patent drawing of the ham slicing machine.

Patent drawing by Harry Hoenselaar.

So whatever your traditions are this Thanksgiving, enjoy the holiday!

And remember, when frying a turkey, safety first!

Innovating to Avoid Turkey Trauma

On Thanksgiving, Americans consume about 46 million turkeys. The key to serving a perfect bird is getting the interior to just the right temperature. Too low and you risk getting sick from the undercooked meat. Too high and it’s likely to be dry.

About 30 million turkeys are sold each year with built-in pop-up timers designed to tell cooks when the bird has reached that magic temperature. Today, the pop-up timer market is dominated by Volk Enterprises, founded in the 1950’s by Anthony Volk. When he returned from serving in World War II, Volk began working in a turkey processing plant, which led him to invent a variety of turkey-related products, and ultimately, to start his eponymous company.

Before he invented his pop-up timer, Volk worked with his brother Henry to create a device called the Hok-Lok, which helps to bind the turkey together. The wire contraption, which is meant to be left on the turkey even during cooking, keeps the drumsticks right alongside the turkey breast, and helps make the breast look plumper. Basically, it keeps the whole bird together and looking nice. Though the company has since innovated on the design and created new binding products out of different materials, the Hok-Lok is still used today.

Patent drawing for the Hok-Lok, a Poultry Trussing Device

Patent drawing for the Hok-Lok, a Poultry Trussing Device

After the Hok-Lok, Volk went on to develop a turkey thermometer, but he wasn’t the first to do so. In the 1960’s, a group from the California Turkey Producers Advisory Board began thinking about how to gauge when a turkey was done—but not overdone. The Board was receiving complaints about turkeys being too dry, which they attributed to overcooking. The group began brainstorming ways to combat this, and came up with the idea of an insertable thermometer.

Diagram of a pop-up turkey timer

How a pop-up timer works (via How Stuff Works)

In 1971, after prototyping various solutions, the group filed a patent for a Thermal Indicator “particularly suited for use in indicating temperatures attained by a heated body such as an article of food….” The Indicator was inspired by ceiling sprinklers that activate when they reach a certain temperature. The turkey thermometer consists of four parts: an outer tubular casing, an inner piece that pops up when the appropriate temperature is reached, a spring, and a small amount of metal at the bottom of the tube. The inner pop-up piece is situated in the metal, which is solid before cooking. The metal melts as the turkey cooks, releasing the inner piece and allowing it to pop up.

Patent drawing for the first pop-up turkey timer

Patent drawing for the first pop-up turkey timer

The group established the Dun-Rite Manufacturing Company to make the devices, but in 1973, sold it to 3M. 3M refined the design and continued to make the timers until 1991, when it sold that part of its business to none other than Volk Enterprises.

In the 1970s, Anthony Volk invented his own turkey thermometer. A reverse of the pop-up timer, Volk’s Vue-Temp thermometer was designed to stick out when the turkey was raw and to sink into the bird as it cooked. The design seemed to confuse consumers, however, and Volk soon abandoned that design to develop his own pop-up timer, which was similar to the Dun-Rite/3M device. (It was so similar, in fact, that 3M sued Volk Enterprises in the 1980s for patent infringement. The suit was ultimately settled, however, and both companies continued to produce the timers.)

Patent drawing for Volk’s first Disposable Cooking Thermometer, the Vue-Temp

Patent drawing for Volk’s first Disposable Cooking Thermometer, the Vue-Temp

Though Volk Enterprises dominates the built-in turkey timer market today, there are also pop-up thermometers that can be purchased independently of a bird. The most innovative (at least aesthetically)? This thermometer that is actually shaped like a turkey. Its drumsticks pop up when the meat is done.

Pop-up turkey thermometer shaped like a turkey.

Via Food Beast

Who Invented Labor Day?

1956 Labor Day Stamp

1956 U.S. Postal Service 3 cent stamp honoring Labor Day – in the National Postal Museum’s collections.

Labor Day—the American holiday on the first Monday of September—generally marks the end of summer, the beginning of the school year, and—in certain circles—an arbitrary cut-off point for wearing white. It’s frequently celebrated by taking a long-weekend trip, firing up the backyard grill at home, or going to see a Labor Day parade. Of course, this is assuming you’re lucky enough to actually get the Monday off from work.  As I contemplated my holiday weekend activities, I began to wonder: Who invented Labor Day?

Matthew Maguire and Peter J. McGuire

Matthew Maguire and Peter J. McGuire (undated) – from Department of Labor

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find several informative articles about the history of Labor Day featured on the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) website. Apparently, as so often happens with invention, there are disputes about who came up with the idea first. DOL acknowledges that two men with coincidentally similar names, Peter J. McGuire and Matthew Maguire, have received credit for suggesting a holiday to honor American workers.

Both men were well-respected union leaders working in the New York-New Jersey region during the 1880s—a very active period in the U.S. labor rights movement. Peter McGuire founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and co-founded, with Samuel Gompers, the American Federation of Labor (better known simply as the AFL). Matthew Maguire served as a secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey, and also as the secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York.  Although the tide seems to be turning toward giving Maguire the primary credit, both men were clearly influential in speaking up on behalf of their fellow workers.

American Federation of Labor label

American Federation of Labor label (circa 1900) – from Wikipedia

The Central Labor Union of New York held the first Labor Day celebrations on September 5 in 1882 (see lithograph) and 1883. The following year the union shifted the holiday to the first Monday of the month. This tradition generally spread as state governments began to officially put the holiday on their calendars. Finally in 1894, the federal government made Labor Day a national holiday for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. According to the DOL, which is celebrating its centennial this year, the holiday is “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

1882 New York City Labor Day Parade

Lithograph of 1882 Labor Day parade in New York City – from Wikimedia Commons

1900 Labor Day Parade in Buffalo

1900 Labor Day parade in Buffalo, New York – courtesy of the Library of Congress

For more about the holiday and related labor history, check out the American Enterprise exhibition blog post by historian Paul Buhle on the National Museum of American History’s website. You can also read a Smithsonian story about Labor Day’s secret societies connection. If you’re a social studies teacher, you might be interested also in the Library of Congress labor-themed educational resources.

Happy Labor Day!

President Woodrow Wilson (Left) with American Federation of Labor founder and long-time president, Samuel Gompers (Center), and DOL Secretary William B Wilson at an undated Labor Day Rally

President Woodrow Wilson (Left) with American Federation of Labor founder and long-time president, Samuel Gompers (Center), and DOL Secretary William B Wilson at an undated Labor Day Rally. – From the Department of Labor website

A Very Kitschy Christmas

KITSCH:

Happy holidays!

The Christmas Tree, Lithograph ca1860. Source: NMAH , neg. # 2003-24670, The Harry T. Peters Collection,

Is it just me, or do you also sometimes wonder who invents all of the kitschy stuff being marketed, purchased, and possibly displayed in your own living room this time of year? Christmas is not the only holiday in December, but surely it wins the contest for inspiring the most odd, sometimes amusing, often ridiculous assortment of commercial products in stores right now. And these items appear on shelves earlier and earlier each season. I recall taking a photo in October as I stood in a home improvement store gaping in disbelief at the array of flashing Christmas lights, fake trees, singing Santas, and other decorations already being stocked. It wasn’t even Halloween yet (which arguably wins the overall award for holiday kitsch) and suddenly I felt pressured to consider buying things made by Santa’s little elves.

Christmas aisle...at Halloween.

Now, don’t get me wrong, “kitsch” has its place in our marketplace. There is a supply and demand relationship, and besides who hasn’t bought at least a few items just because they made you laugh?! I certainly have. So I’m not intending here to disparage anyone who decides to purchase, say, a sensor-activated reindeer who sings the Rudolph song while his red nose lights up. [I haven’t actually seen such a thing. Maybe I should invent it?] However, as I was helping my friend and neighbor decorate her house last week, I was struck by the array of items emerging from her holiday storage bins. Who are the inventors behind these products?

Well, I certainly cannot fully answer that question in this blog. Unfortunately I do not have the time or energy to look up patent numbers on my neighbor’s holiday décor or my own, let alone search for non-patented kitsch. However, I was intrigued when a colleague of mine shared a recent blog about a 1950 patent from inventor Leo R. Smith for a vibrating Christmas tree (not the phrase he used on the patent application but I didn’t want to seem too risqué).

This led me to quickly search “Christmas” on Google’s patents website, which brought up approximately 199,000 results including in just the first few pages: a “Pop-Up Artificial Christmas Tree” (U.S. patent #6514581, inventor Cheryl A. Gregory); “Christmas Tree Shaped Pasta (design patent #D392785, inventors Ricardo Villota and Guillermo Haro); “Christmas Stocking, Puppet and Story Media Combination” (patent #5389028, inventors Catherine Cabrera, Pepper de Callier, and Priscilla de Callier); and “Christmas Deer Toy Capable of Moving Head, Neck, and Tail” (patent #6769954, inventor Lien Cheng Su).

Patent drawing for “Christmas Deer Toy Capable of Moving Head, Neck, and Tail."

Aha! The deer toy sounded a bit like my Rudolph idea.  So then I looked at the patent citations on Lien Cheng Su’s 2003 patent application. The first one on the list is for a “Voice Making Device for Moving Animal Toy and Moving Animal Toy Using the Voice Making Device” (patent #4820232) by inventors Hajime Takahasi and Elichi Maeda. Note I did not make up the patent name.

I could spend innumerable hours conducting this research. Suffice it to say here that pondering these unheralded inventors and innovators reminds me how little we know about the people who have created the material objects around us or their motivations. We will probably never learn why Mr. Smith, Ms. Gregory, and Mr. Su felt it was necessary to invent a vibrating Christmas tree, pop-up Christmas tree, or a moving Christmas deer, respectively.  However, I would like to argue that we should take a moment every now and then to appreciate that people have shared their creative energy with us through their inventions no matter how kitschy they may be.

I will end with a reference to the Library of Congress’s Everyday Mysteries article “Who invented electric Christmas lights?” Regardless of whether or not you celebrate the holiday or like to decorate for it, I think most people would agree that seeing Christmas lights on a dark winter’s night makes things feel festive. As the article says, “We can be grateful to Thomas Edison, Edward H. Johnson and Albert Sadacca for illuminating our holiday season.”