Friday, August 14, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #117: Why Doesn’t America Use Metric?

When you’re an American living abroad, you’re subjected to any number of rude questions like “Why are you all so fat?” and “Why are you all so stupid?” One French girl even wanted to know why America refuses to split up into several smaller countries, because obviously, “It’s too big.” No, this woman has never visited the United States, as far as I know, and when I asked her if she felt the same way about Canada, she appeared unaware that Canada is really big.

You’re also expected to provide thoughtful, cogent responses to questions that would take most people years of thorough research to answer, such as “What’s the deal with all the guns?” or “Why don’t you guys have universal health care?” or, if the person in question has traveled or lived in any part of the country besides New York City, “Why isn’t there any public transport?” (Of course, if the person has traveled or lived in New York City – AND THEY ALL FUCKING HAVE – the question becomes “Why don’t you just walk places instead of driving? Then you all wouldn’t be so fat.” “I live ten miles from the nearest town” is not the most convincing response to such a remark, because they all think “ten miles” is the equivalent of like 500 meters or something.

I don’t want to discuss guns, health care, or the obesity epidemic at this juncture, but there’s one question that has remained foremost in my mind throughout my many travels, and as you might have guessed, that’s “Why doesn’t America use the metric system?” The whole rest of the world uses it, except for the aptly named Liberia and Myanmar, but Myanmar has recently chosen to metricate, like a bunch of sissies.

Though there are some differences between the British Imperial system and the American customary system, the American system is based on the British Imperial system, which spread throughout the English-speaking world courtesy of, you guessed it, British imperialism. That system was developed in an era when most people couldn’t do much math – the most the average person could do was divide things into halves, quarters, and possibly thirds. They certainly couldn’t cope with tenths, a necessary skill for working with the metric system. That’s why the weights and measurements of the Imperial and customary systems are, for the most part, easily divisible into halves and quarters and thirds – just about any illiterate medieval peasant could figure out what one-third of a foot is, but one-third of a decimeter is BURN THE WITCH.


The French government implemented the metric system following the Revolution as a solution to the growing clusterfuck of non-standardized and conflicting systems of measurement that was engulfing the country as a whole, standing in the way of commerce, and generally causing giant pains in everyone’s culs. Stephen Mihm, associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, told The Atlantic that “it took many decades for France to get its citizens to adopt [the metric system] – there were many, many setbacks and a staggering amount of resistance.” The implementation of the metric system was part of the First French Republic’s attempt to decimalize the whole of French society, introducing the French Republican Calendar and implementing ten-day weeks and 100-minute hours that were twice as long as normal hours. (I bet you can guess how well that went over.) While most of the changes were eventually abandoned, the metric system quickly caught on among other countries looking for a standardized system of measurement.

By the end of the 19the century, most countries around the world had adopted the metric system, but the United States, among other Anglophone nations, clung to the Imperial/customary system. Initially, American reluctance to switch to the metric system hinged on the objections of Industrial-era machine and tool manufacturers, who had already based the whole of their manufacturing systems on the inch. They claimed that retooling their entire factories to produce metric tools and equipment could be financially disastrous, and successfully lobbied to block the adoption of the metric system numerous times over the 19th and 20th century.

Nevertheless, if you’re American, you may have noticed that you buy your soda in liters and that there are centimeters down one side of your ruler. At some point, a school teacher may have even fruitlessly attempted to teach you metric conversion. There was a time in more recent history when the United States almost joined the rest of the world in counting by tens. As former British colonies around the world, and even the UK itself, began adopting the metric system in the 1960s, America decided to do the same. In 1975, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act and established the Metric Board to oversee the transition to metric. However, Congress made metrication voluntary, and the public rebelled. Some argued that metrication was unpatriotic. The director of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame called the proposal “definitely communist.” Some feared it would pave the way for a Soviet takeover of the United States. But mostly, people just didn’t want to learn a whole new system. By 1982, the dream of metric in the United States was dead. President Reagan disassembled the Metric Board, and democracy was safe once again.

For now.
Image by Catherine Munro at Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #116: The History of Menstrual Products

If you’re one of those dudes who gets all completely freaked out at the mere mention of menstruation or any of its associated commercial products, you might want to consider not reading this post. Some other things you might want to consider include growing the fuck up.

As a person who is biologically female, I’ve often wondered what women did before the days of tampons and sanitary napkins – although normally, these feelings would be superseded by an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that I was born in the days of routine vaccinations, indoor plumbing, and women’s rights. My child psychologist (because I had that kind of childhood) once told me, to my horror, that when she was a girl self-adhesive sanitary napkins hadn’t been invented yet, so she had to wear a belt to which the sanitary napkin would attach on both ends, in the manner, I imagined, of a loincloth.

More or less.

What did women use before the invention of sanitary napkins and tampons? For centuries, women relied on strips of folded cloth. The earliest recorded mention of sanitary napkins appears in the Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia of the classical world. Fourth-century Greek philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, Hypatia, is also said to have rejected a gentleman caller by flinging her used menstrual cloth at him.

My kind of woman.

Tampons were not unheard of in the ancient world. They are mentioned in the world’s oldest medical document, the Papyrus Ebers, which discusses the Egyptian use of tampons made of soft papyrus as far back as the fifteenth century B.C., aka a damn long time ago. The ancient Greeks wrapped lint around small slivers of wood to make tampons (ouch). Roman women used tampons made of wool, while Japanese women used paper tampons that had to be changed 10 to 12 times a day (omg fuck that). Native Hawaiian women fashioned tampons from a furry, native fern known as hapu’u, and throughout Asia, women still use mosses, grasses, and other plant materials to make tampons to this day.

The first cotton tampons were actually invented for use in medicine in the 18th century, when they were treated with salicylic acid (which you may recognize as the main ingredient in aspirin) and used to staunch the bleeding from gunshot wounds. Tampons are still classified medical devices in many countries today, including the United States, where they may continue to serve their original purpose in the operating theater.

Image by Shattonsbury~commonswiki at Wikimedia Commons.

The first commercial sanitary napkins were available near the end of the 19th century, with the first American sanitary napkin being Lister’s Towels, marketed by Johnson & Johnson in 1896. Sanitary napkins failed to catch on with American women for some time, due to a combination of (allegedly) widespread prudishness and the fact that they were cost prohibitive for many women.

Throughout the early years of the 20th century, women continued to deal with their periods much as they had always done, by using homemade products. Women’s underwear of the time was crotchless, so women held cloth sanitary napkins in place by pinning them to their underwear or wearing a homemade sanitary belt. Most women fashioned homemade menstrual pads out of the same absorbent fabric they used for their babies’ diapers. For traveling, women would stuff a cloth sack with flattened cotton. The used cotton could be thrown away and the reusable sack filled afresh as needed. Many women wore specially designed bloomers or sanitary aprons to protect their clothes from stains.

Disposable pads entered the scene in the 1920s, when Kotex pads were first marketed. Shopkeepers would save women the embarrassment of asking for these products out loud by placing a money box on the counter next to the Kotex so female customers could take a box and pay discreetly. It was during this decade, too, that women started wearing closed-crotch underwear, which made it easier to hold the newly fashionable disposable sanitary napkins in place. Though the first self-adhesive menstrual pads appeared in 1969, women continued wearing sanitary belts and napkins until the early 1980s. I didn’t realize they hung around that long, because after the aforementioned session with the child psychologist, I went home and asked my mother if she had ever needed a belt to hold up her maxi pad.

She replied, “No, Mom bought me the self-adhesive ones.”

Way to be progressive, Grandma.