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The Uncommon Life

From Hogmanay to Krampus: 12 Uncommon Facts About the Holidays

December 4, 2015

It seems that the holiday season gets longer every year—commercially, at least—so it’s kind of ironic that the traditions spanning the season once lasted for twelve days. Once, that seemed like a long time. Now, it’s just a portion of the holiday pie that’s served up the day after Halloween and lasts straight through the January sales. So to honor the ancient traditions of the twelve days while you ponder the perfect gift for your Uncle Ralph, we offer this gift of a dozen uncommon facts about this festive season.

The Holiday JournalThe Holiday Journal

1) First, about those twelve days of Christmas. Thanks to the popular carol, many people today think it’s about wooing your true love with a stage full of performers, barnyard animals, and five gold rings. Actually, both “twelve days” and “Christmas” are misleading for two reasons: first, if you count from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night, it’s really a full two weeks on the calendar, and second, those two weeks encompass observances well beyond the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The twelve days include delightful, archaic holidays such as Boxing Day, Mother Night, St. Distaff’s Day, and the Feast of Fools, so there’s more packed into “the holidays” than you might expect.

Emergency Clown NoseEmergency Clown Nose

2) Of the colorful highlights of the twelve days now largely lost to history, the Feast of Fools may be most ripe for a revival. Like a combination of April Fool’s Day and Mardi Gras, this fourth day of Christmas was hugely popular in the middle ages as a rare opportunity to party down, despite the Church’s constant condemnation of the occasion. This popular feast day was marked by topsy-turvy social role-playing, colorful mumming, and raucous revelry of every kind. Sound good? Who wouldn’t want to blow off some steam a few days after our contemporary Christmas craziness?

Whiskey Tasting SetWhisk(e)y Tasting Set

3) The sixth day of Christmas—New Year’s Eve—might be considered first in significance in Scotland. There, it’s traditionally known as Hogmanay, a possible corruption of the French au guis menez (“to the mistletoe,” suggesting a Druidic origin). But whatever its name or origins, the celebration is essentially the same to this day—drinking toasts to the old year, counting down to the new, and tying on a few more after midnight. But a wonderful part of Scottish Hogmanay called “First Footing” is less common. In this ritual, the first person to put their foot across a threshold has the honor of bringing good fortune to the whole household. Sometimes, this metaphor for stepping through the door of a new year was accompanied by a handsel, a gift of a lump of coal or a bottle of whisky (no e in Scotland) to symbolize the many gifts of the coming year. Warmth…whisky…who needs a Christmas sweater?

A Grand Treasury of Shakespearean InsultsA Grand Treasury of Shakespearean Insults

4) Traditionally, the end of the twelve days on Twelfth Night was marked by the unpopular task of taking down Christmas decor—packing away permanent ornaments, and disposing of natural ones like evergreen boughs and holly. It was once considered bad luck not to do so by Twelfth Night (we’re looking at you, guy who keeps all his lights up until Valentine’s Day). Seventeenth century poet Robert Herrick asserted that failure to make a clean sweep on Twelfth Night could turn every spine on the holly into a malevolent goblin. But Twelfth Night was not just a warm up to spring cleaning, it came with its own festive traditions like a special Twelfth Night cake. A bean was baked into the cake, and whoever found it in his or her slice was crowned king or queen of Twelfth Night, leading the gathering in songs and games. Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies, was written as an elaborate court entertainment for the season’s-end festivities.

5) So how do we end up with so much greenery to dispose of at that end of the season? Since ancient times, evergreen plants like holly, ivy, and various conifers have been associated with the persistence of life through the cold and dark of winter. Originally, the power of these plants to resist seasonal die-off was seen as magical, so bringing them indoors as decorations was a way to capture some of that vitality during the winter doldrums. The old English carol “The Holly and the Ivy” reflects some of the lore that developed around these plants. But the king of holiday greens, the Christmas tree, didn’t really come on the scene until the seventeenth century. Although it has many ancient origins, including traditions of decorating evergreens during the Roman Saturnalia, the Christmas tree as we know it is a German invention of the 1600s, and didn’t catch on in American until the nineteenth century.

Manzanita Branch With Mistletoe

Manzanita Branch With Mistletoe

6) Among the traditional holiday evergreens, mistletoe has ancient origins as well as a specific, modern function. To the Druids, mistletoe was sacred and central to their rites. A parasitic plant that grows on certain trees (including oaks—also sacred to the Druids) mistletoe means “all-healing” in the Druidic language because they believed it was a cure-all (warning: actually extremely poisonous, so don’t throw mistletoe berries into your holiday baking!). Today, a bunch of mistletoe hung in a doorway becomes a special spot to steal a kiss. The connection between the Druid’s reverence for the plant and this excuse for snogging is unclear, but likely stems from a belief that the plant embodied vitality and fertility, similar to the other winter evergreens. So, next time you catch mommy kissing Santa Claus, you can blame it on a bunch of parasitic weeds.

7) Long before the customary exchange of gift cards and fruitcakes (giving real meaning to the phrase “you shouldn’t have”), giving gifts around December 25th was an important and varied tradition. In the Christian tradition, the custom of Christmas gift-giving is based on the gifts of the three Magi, but there are other precedents for presents. In Sicily, an old woman named Strina brings gifts on Christmas, and her name may stem from the Roman goddess Strenia, whose feast day was marked by the exchange of green boughs (sound familiar?). In a related French tradition, gifts called entrennes are given on New Year’s Day. In Germany and Scandinavia, a gifting tradition called Julklapp involves knocking on doors, flinging wrapped packages into houses, and running away. Sometimes, these gift bombs incorporate marriage proposals (take that, fiancé!). And of course, there’s a certain bearded man in a red suit…

North Pole Dish TowelNorth Pole Dish Towel

8) SPOILER ALERT: Are the kids in bed? If so, read on. The familiar figure of St. Nicholas / Santa Claus / Kris Kringle has as many names and origin stories as he has toy trains and candy canes. For historians, he’s Saint Nicholas of Patara or Myra, a third century bishop from Turkey who was known for anonymous gifts to poor children. But many aspects of European Santas can be traced to the pre-Christian shamans of the Finns and Laplanders—bearded, red-robed figures with jingle bells who climbed the world tree into the sky to return with gifts of prophesy. And like the Christmas tree, Santa wasn’t fully formed as a pop culture phenomenon until the nineteenth century, thanks largely to the detailed description offered by Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”). This complex history may be hard to follow, but it’s also the source of Santa’s enduring power as the main man of the season.

You've Been Naughty Popcorn Coal

You’ve Been Naughty Popcorn Coal

9) But what if you end up on Santa’s “naughty” list at this time of year? Then you just might get a visit from one of his dark counterparts such as the German Klaubauf, Swiss Schmutzli, or Austrian Krampus. Long before they were co-opted by Hollywood, these evil anti-Santas were portrayed in central European lore as sooty, menacing monsters with fiery eyes, red, lolling tongues, and clanking chains—like a cross between a demon and Dickens’ ghost of Jacob Marley. What role do these horrific figures play in the holiday pageant? Simple: scare tactics. They appear to frighten or punish bad little children, giving grave implications to the lyrical warning “you better watch out…you better not cry.” Now, who wouldn’t rather be on the “nice” list?

September Sun Mismatched Socks

September Sun Mismatched Socks

10) Assuming you’ve been nice and remembered to hang your stocking by the chimney with care, you can expect to find it filled with treats on Christmas morning. But why stockings? Why doesn’t Santa put goodies in gloves or dresser drawers? Turns out there are at least two legendary inspirations for St. Nick’s love of hosiery. The first is a tale of the historic St. Nicholas who helped a down-and-out merchant with dowry money for his three daughters. Preferring to act anonymously, Nicholas rode by on horseback and flung three bags of gold down the chimney—they landed in the daughters’ stockings, which had been hung on the fireplace to dry. The other legend comes from the Netherlands, where the Dutch Santa, Sinterklaas, travels the country on his white steed (again with the horses). Dutch children would leave carrots and hay in their wooden clogs for the horse, and Sinterklaas would fill the shoes with small gifts in return. Not stockings…but close.

Glowing Log Lamp

Glowing Log Lamp

11) Those of us without fireplaces have to make do by hanging stockings on doorknobs or shelves, but what about the Yule log? Today, you can enjoy a crackling, digital simulation, but the tradition of burning a special log at Yuletide was central to the traditional celebration of the season. The origins of this practice are obscure, but it clearly relates to the preservation of light and warmth through the darkness of winter. It’s a case of where the practical act of heating a home took on a symbolic dimension of preserving the flame of the sun until its return. Various traditions have developed around this cozy custom, making a reverent ritual of selecting, cutting, bringing in, and burning the Yule log. In fact, the ritual extended to some personifications of Santa and his helpers carrying the ashes of the previous season’s Yule log as a sort of perpetual seed. Pressing “Play” on Youtube doesn’t have quite the same symbolic impact, but it beats setting off your smoke detectors.

Hot Toddy Diagram Glassware

Hot Toddy Diagram Glassware

12) What would the holidays be without a hearty toast or two? The tipsy traditions of the season go well beyond eggnog and spiced winter lagers. Take the ancient act of wassailing, for example—an integral part of rituals meant to bless nature and ensure a good harvest in the coming year. Wassail derives from wase haile or “good health,” and the tradition in Britain involves pouring a spiced cider or ale on the roots of apple and other fruit trees to nourish them symbolically in their dormancy. In time, this expanded to the custom of mummers going door to door with a large bowl of wassail—often carved from apple wood—sharing the brew and offering gifts of song in exchange for alms from each household. As the wassailing progressed and started to include taverns as well as homes, the singing probably got more and more boisterous! The wassailing tradition also encompasses the origin of the term “toast” for a celebratory drink. We’ll toast to that!

Perpetual CalendarsPerpetual Calendars

Finally, it’s worth noting that the twelve days of Christmas originated in part as a calendar correction. In the late sixteenth century when Pope Gregory reformed the calendar adopted from the Roman Emperor Julian, he noticed that ten days had been “lost” due to the imbalance between the true length of the solar year and the number of days on the Julian calendar. By the mid-eighteenth century when the new calendar was officially embraced by an act of the British Parliament, the “missing” days had mounted to eleven. Making these days—known as intercalary—an even twelve represents the twelve months of the year, and in the Christian tradition honors the twelve apostles. Though these days are no longer “lost,” they remain symbolically outside of linear time—a chance to pause, relax, celebrate, and enjoy the many gifts and rich traditions of the season.

Christmas Gifts

 

With grateful acknowledgement to The Winter Solstice by John Matthews, an invaluable resource on the many traditions of the season.

The Uncommon Life

Gorge on Knowledge: Uncommon Facts About 5 Traditional Holiday Foods

November 26, 2015

Popcorn Bowl with Kernel Sifter | UncommonGoods

Many of us will, thankfully, have multiple opportunities to stuff our faces during the holiday season. We thought you might also like to stuff your heads with a few fascinating facts about some traditional holiday foods.

Cranberries

The cranberry was a staple in Native American Indian diets at the time the Mayflower arrived. The Algonquin called them “sassamenesh;” the Wampanoag and Lenni-Lenape word was “ibimi,” which means “bitter/sour berries.” They were one of the foods that natives taught the Pilgrims to cultivate, enabling them to survive. To European eyes, the pink cranberry flowers that bloomed in spring resembled the head of a crane, so they called them craneberries. The slide from “crane” to “cran” has been lost to history.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Author: nigel from vancouver, Canada https://www.flickr.com/people/11652987@N03

Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis), British Columbia, Canada. (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Photographer: nigel from vancouver, Canada)

Stuffing

Soapstone Pot with Copper Handle | UncommonGoods

Cooks have probably been stuffing foods with other foods since cooking began. Recipes including stuffing appear in the first known Western cookbook, the Roman Apicius (c. 900 AD). The Latin “farcire” (gorge, stuff) became the French “farcir” and the English “farce.” The term “stuffing” first appeared in print in English in 1538.

Sometime during the Victorian era, it was decided by refined elements of society that the word “stuffing” was too suggestive. So, just as a leg of poultry became a “drumstick,” thighs became “dark meat,” and breasts became “white meat,” the euphemism “dressing” became preferred over the original term. We have been uncertain about which is which ever since, but they are one and the same.

Chestnuts

Classic Blue Serving Bowl with Felt | UncommonGoods

Chestnuts are mostly thought of as seasonal treat today, but they have actually been a staple food for millennia in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, in mountainous regions where it was difficult to grow grains. The earliest evidence of human cultivation dates to around 2000 BC. Alexander the Great and the Romans planted chestnut trees across Europe to help fuel their empire-building. The chestnut was a major source of complex carbohydrates on the Continent until the introduction of the potato in the 16th century. Highland Italian peasants still survived on chestnuts for part or all of the year even in the 19th century.

Candied Yams

Olive Swirl Ruffle Serving Bowl | UncommonGoods

Thought to be native to Central America, the sweet potato has been cultivated for at least 5000 years. Ipomoea batatas, the species we make into “candied yams,” was commonly grown in the Caribbean and South America by 2500 BC. (It’s not actually a yam, but the misnomer, from the West African languages in which the verb “nyam” means “to eat,” has stuck.) African slaves in the Americas would roast them in the embers of a fire. When the natural caramelization of their sugars gave them a glassy crust, they were described as “candied.” We would probably all be better off if we had just left them that way, and the much later addition of the mass-produced factory marshmallow, perfected in the 1950s, had never happened.

Green Bean Casserole

Sac A Plat | UncommonGoods

The green bean casserole’s origins are not shrouded in the mists of time. It was invented 60 years ago, in 1955, by one Dorcas Reilly, a home economist then employed in the Campbell’s Soup Co. test kitchen in New Jersey, after an Associated Press reporter called asking for a vegetable side dish.

It wasn’t created in a single stroke of instantaneous genius, but went through iterative development. Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup came out in 1934 and turned up so frequently in Midwestern casserole recipes–including Minnesota hotdish recipes–that it developed a nickname: “Lutheran binder.” Reilly tried versions of these casseroles with corn, peas, and lima beans, but in the end, the green bean’s supremacy was too obvious to ignore. The “Green Bean Bake” burst forth to a hungry, time-pressed world.

The aforementioned Associated Press reporter wrote it up, and the recipe appeared in an AP feature for Thanksgiving 1955. The casserole is now served as part of the Thanksgiving meal in 30 million homes.

Campbell’s now estimates that 40% of the Cream of Mushroom soup sold in the US is used in green bean casseroles. There are gluten-free and paleo versions now, of course.

In 2002, Mrs. Reilly appeared at the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame to donate the original copy of the recipe to the museum. The now-yellowed 8 x 11 recipe card can be found in its rightful place among inventions like Edison’s light bulb and phonograph and Enrico Fermi’s controlled nuclear reactor.

See Our Serveware Collection | UncommonGoods

The Uncommon Life

Brews You Can Use: 10 Uncommon Facts About Beer

October 2, 2015

 

14th Century Beer Stein | UncommonGoods14th Century Beer Stein 

With evidence of brewing dating from 9500 BCE, beer is an ancient elixir with an ancestry almost as old as civilization itself. After water and tea, it’s the third most consumed liquid in the world. So, with a history encompassing over 11,000 years and billions of barrels, it should come as no surprise that the story of beer includes many fascinating facts, astounding ingredients, and colorful characters.

In honor of Oktoberfest, when Munich welcomes thousands of revelers to quaff its best brews, here’s an uncommon look at the history of beer in the form of ten trivial draughts:

Oktoberfest Ale Beer Brewing Kit | UncommonGoods

 

Oktoberfest Ale Beer Brewing Kit

1) Beer was your best beverage bet in medieval Europe, when a drink of contaminated water could be fatal. Beer slogans at the time almost wrote themselves—“Beer: the Cholera-Free Alternative!” But the rise of beer as an everyday staple meant that unscrupulous brewers were prone to cut corners. Enter the Reinheitsgebot—a family of laws governing brewing first introduced in Bavaria in 1516. The best-known part of the law dictates that beer must contain only three ingredients: water, hops, and barley (yeast is essential, but hadn’t been discovered yet). While brewers through the centuries have continued to experiment with other ingredients seeking either distinctive results or cheaper production, the Reinheitsgebot set the gold standard for beer purists, with the diversity of styles stemming mainly from the types of malt and hops used.

Magnificent Multitude of Beer | UncommonGoods

 

The Magnificent Multitude of Beer Wood Engraving

2) But is it healthy? Citizens of the Czech Republic, who consume the most beer year after year (an impressive 150 liters per capita in 2014), would answer with a resounding “YES!” Along with their caloric content, many beers are good sources of B vitamins, which aid metabolism, and silicon, which helps improve bone matrix quality. Also, hops contain an antioxidant that’s been shown to ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So, a beer a day can help keep the doctor away…but everything in moderation, of course.

Beer Tasting Flight | UncommonGoods

Beer Tasting Flight

3) Now, about those calories. Because about 75% of the calories in beer come from its alcohol content (ABV, or alcohol by volume), lower alcohol beers are generally lower in calories. Dry stouts like Guinness (with an ABV of 4.2%), are less likely to make you stout than Belgian ales with higher ABVs. It’s a common misconception that darker beers are “stronger,” and therefore more calorie-laden, when in fact the opposite is often true. On the extreme end of the caloric / ABV spectrum is a barleywine with the intimidating name Snake Venom which boasts an ABV of 67.5% and a yellow warning flag on each bottle neck that resembles police caution tape (for good reason).

HTML Beer Glasses | UncommonGoods

HTML Beer Glasses

4) Drink-on-a-dare beers aside, how do you get your daily dose of restorative, relatively healthy pilsner, lager, or stout? Beer delivery systems themselves provide some fascinating facts. Danish brewer Carlsberg established an “honorary residence” next to its brewery to laud “a man or a woman deserving of esteem from the community by reason of services to science, literature, or art…” Along with his Nobel Prize, physicist Niels Bohr received an invitation to occupy the residence, and lived there for thirty years (1932-62). Better still, the house came with an awesome amenity: a perpetual supply of beer, piped into the home directly from the brewery. Who says science has to be dry?

Beer Towel | UncommonGoods

Beer Towel

5) There are other, longer examples of beer pipelines. The Veltins-Arena, a German football stadium in Gelsenkirchen, boasts a 5 kilometer-long pipeline to supply beer to over 60,000 thirsty spectators at its 100 eateries. And in ale-loving Belgium, the city of Bruges plans a 3 kilometer-long underground pipeline to connect the De Halve Maan brewery to a bottling plant, diverting disruptive trucks from its historic cobblestone streets.

Tankard Stein | UncommonGoods

Tankard Stein

6) Still not convinced that beer should be your beverage of choice? Looking for a divine sign? How about a blessing from a beloved American “Founding Father?” These impulses have encouraged the conviction that Benjamin Franklin once said “beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy.” Healthy, historic, and encouraged by such an august figure—how perfect is that? Unfortunately, this beer drinker t-shirt favorite has little basis in fact. Franklin did write a similar sentiment about wine, musing on the miracle of the Biblical wedding at Cana: “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” (letter to André Morellet, 1779). Apparently, this statement has been paraphrased through the years, and “wine” replaced with “beer”—perhaps by someone in the beer lobby with a love of colonial wit.

Das Horn | UncommonGoods

Das Horn

7) Short of “proof that god wants us to be happy (beer drinkers),” there’s a surprisingly long list of saints who bless beer culture. The roster includes Augustine of Hippo, Luke the Apostle, and Nicholas of Myra. If that last one sounds familiar, it’s the St. Nicholas—aka Santa Claus. Other saints have more specific, local associations, such as Arnold of Soissons, the Belgian patron saint of hop pickers. But if there’s one saint-like figure beloved by brewers, it’s Gambrinus. Likely an amalgamation of a Flemish king and other historic figures, Gambrinus is depicted as a jovial, bearded monarch of malt, often bearing a stein or a keg as attributes. The renowned Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell (originator of pilsner beer) honors Gambrinus with their beers of the same name.

Home Brew Journal | UncommonGoods

Home Brew Journal

8) Back to that Bavarian assertion that beer should only have a four-ingredient recipe. For reasons good and bad, brewers through the centuries have thrown other things into their worts. Early American brewers had to improvise with what they had available, adding pumpkin, spruce tips, and verboten adjuncts like corn and rice to their beer. More recently, the craft beer revival has encouraged experimentation that’s scrapped the Reinheitsgebot—with mixed results. This pursuit of novelty includes ingredients from the questionable to the downright revolting: chili peppers, wasabi, mustard seeds, oysters, pizza crust, and coffee brewed from beans recovered from the droppings of a civet. But the grand prize for off-putting beer ingredients must go to the Oregon brewery that used a yeast strain cultivated from the brewmaster’s own beard. Waiter, there’s beard yeast in my beer…

Gold Leaf Upcycled Beer Bottle Tumbler Set | UncommonGoods

Gold Leaf Upcycled Beer Bottle Tumbler Set

9) Whatever its unusual ingredients, no beer can promise everlasting life, but at least one fictional tale casts a beer as a powerful potion and plot device. In Tim Powers’ fantasy The Drawing of the Dark, an inn in Vienna brews a mystical beer called Herzwesten (“the heart of the west”). Tapped only once every 700 years, the beer is a sort of earthy eau de vie, which ultimately helps revive the Fisher King, spiritual protector of the West against an impending Ottoman invasion. This portrayal of beer as a sort of alchemical avatar is a reflection of how highly prized it is European lore, history, and culture.

Beer Jelly Set | UncommonGoods

Beer Jelly Set

10) Bonus: the brewmaster in The Drawing of the Dark is the aptly-named Gambrinus.

Beer Gifts | UncommonGoods

 

The Uncommon Life

It’s Teatime: 10 Uncommon Facts About Tea

September 22, 2015

PicMonkey Collage

We’re saying “So long, Summer,” which means it’s almost time to trade in those nice, cold pitchers of iced tea for steamy cups of the hot stuff. For centuries tea has been one of the world’s favorite drinks, and for millennia it has had a central place in the daily lives and culture of people throughout the world. With the hot, relaxing brew in mind, we’ve put together 10 uncommon facts you didn’t know about tea. Enjoy!

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Tea is perhaps the single best traveled beverage in the world. It was allegedly discovered in about 2737 BC by the second emperor of China after tea leaves blew into his boiling water. It since spread West by way of Turkish traders and East to Japan, and was a major catalyst for the development of trade relations between East and West. Today, tea is the most widely consumed beverage worldwide, after water, and is cultivated in 42 countries, mainly in in Asia, Africa, South America, and around the Black and Caspian Seas – all well represented in the Tea from Around the World Set.

 

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You might think that the need to travel with tea in a rush would be a uniquely 21st Century phenomenon, but it turns out that the scramble to bring tea to market way back in the way back was even more intense than your morning rush. After the British East India Company lost its monopoly on the tea trade with China in 1834 following adjustments to its charter, the tea trade suddenly became a free-for-all. Where there was once no rush, British Company merchants now had to compete with American merchants. Favoring newly designed, swift Tea Clippers, merchants in the 1860s would face off on an ultimate race around the world – beginning in China, ships would set out together and cross the Indian Ocean, round the Cape of Good Hope, and up the Atlantic to be pulled by tugboat up the River Thames. First to unload their cargo ashore wins! | Tea to Go

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It seems that accidents played a major part in tea-related innovation over the years. The tea bag was originally “invented” by New York coffee merchant Thomas Sullivan in 1904. Though he originally intended them to be single-serving samples of tea, his customers found it easier to brew the tea while still sealed in the small, porous bags. The idea clearly took off – in the US today, the vast majority of tea is brewed using tea bags. The Tea Bag Holding Mug has you covered.

 

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Despite thousands of varieties across regions and cultures, tea all comes from the same plant, and there are really only four varieties – black, oolong, white, and green – as determined by oxidation time after harvesting. Though black has historically been the most popular, the popularity of green tea is growing much faster, likely due to its widely revered health properties. Green tea can benefit weight loss, longevity, skin care, heart disease, cholesterol, tooth decay, depression … you get the idea. | Green Herbal Tea Kit 

 

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Tea leaf reading, or Tasseomancy (cup reading), is thought to have originally originated in China, and began to grow in popularity in Europe when it was adopted by nomadic Romany people in the 18th century, to whom it is regarded as an art form. Unlike some other “mancies,” even those who are not gifted with clairvoyance – like you – are able to read the symbols. Pro tip: use loose leaf tea rather than tea cut from tea bags – the coarser cut “reads” better. And if you see a black cat in the bottom of your cup, don’t take it personally. | Tea Leaf Reading Kit

 

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Despite being mostly water, tea is actually one of the least water-intensive drinks, requiring less water per liter than coffee, beer, wine, or most fruit juices. To put things in perspective, 1,120 liters of water go into producing a single liter of coffee, whereas only 120 liters go into one liter of tea. The Tea Towel is still there for you during those rare spills mid-brew, packing more tea facts to boot.

 

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It’s easy to think of iced tea as an auxiliary form of the beverage, but in the United States it’s actually the main attraction – approximately 85% of tea served in the US is iced! Cookbooks dating back to the 19th century indicate that Americans have been drinking the refreshing, iced beverage for a long time. But no American loves iced tea as much as Georgia state representative John Noel, who introduced legislation on April Fool’s Day in 2003 mandating that all restaurants serve sweet tea in “an attempt to bring a little humor to the Legislature.” Seeing as the bill didn’t pass, the Iced Tea Gift Set would make a great consolation present for poor ol’ John.

 

PicMonkey Collage

The relaxing, versatile aroma of tea makes it a natural additive to soaps – but did you know that you can use it to clean your house as well? Less harsh than cleaning chemicals, the tanic acid in tea can be used to clean and add a luster to weathered hardwood floors. | Tea Party Soap Set 

 

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It’s easy to imagine why tea appears so frequently in 18th and 19th century English literature – from T.S. Eliot to C.S. Lewis and Charles Dikens to Jane Austen, tea came forth as a vital expression of the times and a familiar, daily act that characters engage in. Yet in novels by famous female writers like Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell, tea becomes something more: a symbol of female power – and appropriately so. When it was first available in England, tea was only available in coffee houses, which only men were allowed to enter, as the smoke and noise was not fit for a lady. Finally, in 1717, the Twining family opened a tea shop that allowed women – a notable step in the social advancement of English women at the time. | Novel Teas

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Which came first: the teacup or the teapot? The teacup. Though tea has been consumed for thousands of years, the teapot has only had a spot on the table for about 500 years – largely due to changes in the way tea is served. Instead of infusing the leaves, Chinese tea-drinkers originally ground the leaves into a paste that was then dried and made into cakes. The cakes were boiled with salt, rice, ginger, orange peel, and spices, making a kind of tea soup foreign to what we’re familiar with today. As tea brewing became a more refined process, the first “official” teapot appeared in about 1500 in Jiangsu, China. | Glass Teapot with Stand

See the Collection | UncommonGoods Tea Gifts

The Uncommon Life

Get Your Brain Buzzing: 8 Uncommon Facts About Honey

September 11, 2015

Casey-in-Uniform

A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to meet with Casey Elsass from MixedMade and tour his honey infusing and bottling facility, where Bees Knees Spicy Honey is born. Casey is a home gourmand turned condiment entrepreneur who makes Spicy Honey, and it was clear that he had his honey facts down. When I asked him about the odd looking organic debris he had to skim from the top of a massive, 60 lb. bucket of honey, he told me — “that’s pollen.”

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At this point, I chimed in something about how eating local honey is supposed to be good at alleviating allergies, since it can contain some local pollen — but Casey’s “ehhhh, I dunno about that. I think that’s just a myth.” left me second-guessing. When I did my research, I confirmed that this was nothing more than a bowl of Honey-Nut Lies.  Honey is actually made from nectar, not pollen, and flowers aren’t the source of allergy-inducing pollen anyways. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet…

To make up for that blunder, we’ve put together a few of our favorite true honey facts sure to have any honey obsessed foodie buzzing.

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1.) Grin and Bear It

Aside from classic ketchup and mustard bottles, few foods can claim to be as visually iconic in the landscape of the post-war American supermarket as the honey bear bottle. The ursine design was first used in 1957 by the Dutch Gold Honey Company; future president of the company Ralph Gamber allegedly remarked: “a bear likes honey, why not a bear of honey?” Classic. Since plastic was more expensive to produce back then, it was somewhat of a business gamble – but it clearly paid off. America’s favorite bear even has a name too – “Nugget.

PicMonkey Collagesghzhf

2.) Sweet and Somber

Today, we drizzle honey on a lot of things – toast, cheese, you name it. How about a dead emperor? I doubt that would fly now – would probably be pretty chalky – but the use of honey in burials used to be all the rage. Notably, Alexander the Great is rumored to have been buried in a golden coffin filled with white honey. That sounds pretty excessive, but he had his reasons; as a prized treat, honey was understandably associated with special occasions, rituals, and distinguished persons way back in the way back. Honey also symbolized death in many ancient cultures, presumably in reference to the sweet sustenance that honey would provide to the soul. Plus, honey is the only organic food that will never expire, and thus a likely preservative. I wonder how good ol’ Alex is holding up after all these years?

Where “Nugget” has his charm, the Varietal Honey Flight brings back the elegance of ancient honey, minus all the morbid death stuff.

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3.) Clean from the Comb

Using honey as a beauty and grooming product may be part of the all-natural beauty industry trend, but honey has been used to clean wounds since ancient times due to it’s antimicrobial properties and viscous stickiness.  Today, the US Food and Drug Administration actually recommends a special kind of honey – Manuka honey – for this purpose, since it has the added effect of releasing hydrogen peroxide. Plus, it’ll help the band-aid stay on better.

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4.) The Honeymoon Isn’t Over

While we’re on the sticky subject, ever wonder where the term “honeymoon” comes from? The term dates back to the Medieval European traditions of a newly married couple drinking honey wine (mead) for a full cycle of the moon after their wedding. Mead was thought to be an aphrodisiac – you get the picture. While “mead” might conjure up imagery of Medieval jousting lists and downy, dirty men slurping from tankards, it’s actually somewhat of a universal beverage, surfacing in cultures from Ancient Greece to Sub-Saharan Africa to Imperial China, and likely predating both wine and beer as the first alcoholic beverage due to its tendency to arise naturally under the right conditions.

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5.) What’s the Buzz?

Not only are honeybees industrious – they’re highly advanced communicators, central to which is their excellent perception of time. Biologists have determined that bees relay the location of food sources through a kind of dance code – first cracked by Karl Ritter von Frisch in 1973 – detailing the direction and distance of the flower relative to the sun’s position, by which they are even able to account for the movement of the sun when they tell their tale. It’s almost like a crude form of vector calculus mixed with interpretive dance.

Wildflower Honeycomb | UncommonGoods

6.) Waxing Philosophical (and Mathematical)

The fastidious and colonial regularity of the honeybee is showcased perfectly by the precise uniformity of honeycomb… but why hexagons? Why not another shape? It’s an age-old question, first posed in 36 BC by the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro. Since wax is resource intensive for honey bees – they need to eat about 8 oz. of honey to make one oz. of wax – it makes sense that they wouldn’t use a shape like a circle, which would create gaps between cells that would need patching with wax. But why not a triangle or square then? It turns out that a hexagonal structure is the most compact and thus uses the least wax – proved only recently in 1999 by mathematician Thomas Hales. The bees knew it all along…

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7.) Mind Your Beeswax

Bees secrete beeswax from special abdominal epidermal glands. Long coveted by humans for use in candles, beeswax has actually been used as a form of currency throughout history! In 181, when the Romans defeated the neighboring Corsicans, they imposed a hefty tax of 100,000 pounds of beeswax on the islanders. Later, in 4 AD, the Roman Catholic Church decreed that only beeswax candles may be used in church rites. The decree still stands today, but church candles are usually only 5 – 50% pure.

 

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8.) It Takes a Colony

Ecological and agricultural issues surrounding domesticated honeybees have gotten a lot of media attention in the past few years. Honeybee populations seem to be vulnerable where they weren’t especially so before, with die-off rates as high as almost 50% in 2013 due to a mysterious phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD). The causes of CCD are still under investigation, but scientists speculate that the prevalence of crop monocultures – which reduce the variety of a colony’s diet – and increased use of pesticides are at least partially to blame. Bees play an integral part in human agriculture as pollinators, and there’s never been a better time to give bees a home.

See Our Honey Products | UncommonGoods

The Uncommon Life

The Best of Uncommon Knowledge: 10 Tidbits to Tighten Your Trivia Game

September 10, 2015

The Best of Uncommon Knowledge | UncommonGoods

Have you ever wondered why so many things are referred to as things or why we wish upon stars? We do, and we’re not about to just sit around wondering! Each week we go out and find a bit of Uncommon Knowledge that answers one of those less-than-pressing, but certainly entertaining, questions. We’ve compiled quite the collection of trivial tidbits over the years, and we figured it was about time to find out which fun facts our readers find the most interesting. The 10 questions below received the most clicks from customers when featured in our weekly emails. (We threw in the answers, too.)

Why are moonshine jugs marked XXX?

Personalized Whiskey Barrel | UncommonGoods

 Personalized Whiskey Barrel

Most of us have only seen them in cartoons or caricatures, but we all know what it means: an old-fashioned jug marked with XXX is full of moonshine. It turns out that the marks refer specifically to moonshine’s distilling process. The moonshiners would start by distilling a mash of fermented sugar cane pulp. The resulting liquid, known as the “singlings,” is foul-tasting and a mere 30-40% alcohol by volume. To get the kick that moonshine is known for, it has to go through two more distillations—rendering it almost 100% pure alcohol. The three X’s on the jug were meant to signify that its contents had completed that triple-step process, and also that it might just be strong enough to knock your shoes off, curl your hair, and take your breath away for the next thirty-six hours.

Why do refined people have blue blood?

Anatomical Heart Pendant | UncommonGoodsAnatomical Heart Pendant 

They don’t. No one does. Blood does vary in color—but only from bright red to dark red. The fact that some blood vessels appear blue beneath the skin is actually trick of the light. Much in the same way that the ocean looks blue even though water itself has no color, when light passes through the outer layers of our skin and bounces off a blood vessel, the frequency most likely to bounce back out to our eyes is blue. That does not have any effect on the color of the blood itself. However, this misconception has long been a tool for supporting class distinction. Starting as far back as medieval Spain, being able to see veins of “sangre azul” beneath pale skin was a mark of a privileged, sheltered life that was unavailable to the sun-tanned working class. And though now we live in an age where sun-starved office workers dream of luxuriating out on the beach somewhere, our blue-blooded illusion of the upper class remains.

Are you a citizen of Pelisipia?

Scratch Map | UncommonGoods

Scratch Map

If Thomas Jefferson had had his way, you might be. In 1787, the newly-formed government of the United States passed an ordinance claiming the land south of the Great Lakes as American soil. Called the Northwest Territory, this act established the pattern by which the government would expand its borders westward: by creating new states rather than by expanding existing ones. Thomas Jefferson was one of the early proponents of this plan. The author of the Declaration of Independence turned his pen to the map of this new frontier, drew straight lines dividing the area into seventeen proposed states, and invented names for them all using a combination of Latin and Native American words. Some of those names, like Illinoia and Michigania, were adapted into official usage. Others, however, would have given an entirely different flavor to the American landscape. Can you imagine hailing from the great states of Metropotamia, Equitasia, Chersonesus, Assenisipia?

Can math save your toast?

Toaster Grilled Cheese Bags | UncommonGoods

Toaster Grilled Cheese Bags

We’ve all experienced the devastating loss of freshly buttered toast. One careless knock off the plate, a case of…butterfingers…en route to your mouth, and the whole slice goes plummeting to its certain doom—almost always to land butter-side down. Conventional wisdom would suggest that you only stand a 50-50 chance of completely ruining breakfast. However, conventional wisdom does not take into account the nature of bread. Bread is made up of delicious pockets of air, which affect its drag as it falls. Cover up those pockets with butter, and you have a rotation situation, meaning (according to science) the bread is only able to rotate one and a half times on its way to your kitchen tile. If your table is standard height, this means you’ll probably be cleaning butter off the floor in the near future. So what’s a bruncher to do? After dropping 100 perfectly good pieces of toast, food science specialists determined that an eight-foot tall table would allow for a full 360-degree rotation, and the salvation of your morning carbohydrate. Incredibly tall toast fans rejoice!

Does short hair make women wild?

Honey Bears Shampoo and Conditioner Set | UncommonGoodsHoney Bears Shampoo and Conditioner Set

It sure must have seemed that way in the early 20th century. Women had worn their hair long in Western culture for centuries, and the latest look at the turn of the century—the Gibson girl—required long tresses piled luxuriantly on top of the head. So during WWI, when women began cutting their hair at ear-level, it was considered rather scandalous. But 1915 was a tipping point, when famed ballroom dancer Irene Castle introduced the “Castle Bob” haircut. Suddenly short hair for women entered the mainstream, along with other shocking fashions, such as high hemlines and cloche hats—which could only be worn by those with short hair. Hairdressers were initially so resistant to the new trend that women would line up outside of men’s barbershops just to get their locks sheered. So did the bob make women wild? Not exactly. The fact is that, in the beginning, short hair was a practical choice for women during the war who were joining the workforce. Long hair is lovely for a magazine spread, but impractical when working with heavy machinery. And even Irene Castle picked her signature look for its ease when dancing. It was only later, in the 1920s, when women—now with a literal weight off their minds—began wondering what additional kinds of liberation they might enjoy.

Did you inherit DNA from both parents?

Genetic Code Glasses | UncommonGoods

Genetic Code Glasses

Yes and no. The kind of DNA that we typically think of in our cells, which is responsible for giving you your father’s nose or your mother’s dimples, definitely comes from both parents. However, that’s not the only kind of DNA you have. Inside your cells are a variety of “organelles” that perform specific functions. One of those, the mitochondrion, is known as the cell’s power plant. It also happens to contain its own independent set of DNA. Research suggests that this genetic material actually has a separate evolutionary origin than our regular DNA, and that mitochondria may have once been bacteria that established a symbiotic relationship within our cells. The other surprising fact about mitochondrial DNA? Children only inherit it from their mothers.

Are beards good for you?

Razor Pit Sharpener | UncommonGoodsRazor Pit Sharpener

It has been scientifically proven that beards are awesome. For one thing, a beard can literally save you from cancer, by blocking 90% of the UV rays that would ordinarily be hitting your face. Since UV radiation also causes signs of aging in skin, a beard can keep you looking younger longer. Facial hair can also reduce your trouble with allergies, by trapping dust and pollen. On the other hand, shaving can cause skin irritation, ingrown hair and bacterial infections. So don’t just grow that beard to enhance your rugged manliness. Grow it for your health.

Why do you want to eat a baby?

Egg Roll Baby | UncommonGoods

Egg Roll Baby

You know all those times when seeing a newborn makes you say, “Oh, what a sweet baby! I could just eat you right up!” Or that inclination to pop those cute little toes into your mouth, or to blow a raspberry on that roly-poly tummy? Research suggests that you do those things because babies make you subconsciously think about food. It’s the smell that does it. The scent of a newborn baby activates the area of the brain that controls food cravings, and prompts a release of the feel-good chemical dopamine. Fortunately, this hunger doesn’t drive us to literally eat our young. Instead, it gives us a craving to nurture, feed and protect those precious little dumplings.

How powerful is a name?Personalized Subway House Sign | UncommonGoodsPersonalized House Sign – Times Square Subway

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but an embarrassing nickname can haunt you for centuries. King Alfonso IX of Leon, for example, is still recorded in the history books as “The Slobberer” because of his tendency to foam at the mouth when angry. Sometimes, however, the nicknames stick so well that we don’t even realize they are nicknames. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was given his nickname because he used the word “che” so often—it’s the Argentine equivalent of saying “dude” or “bro.” The ancient Greek philosopher Plato was actually named Aristocles. The name Plato was supposedly given to him by his wrestling coach, and means “broad”—perhaps the ancient Greek version of “tubby.” But when a nickname sticks, sometimes the best defense is to run with it. When James Hickock couldn’t shake the nickname “Duck Bill”—a reference to his large nose and protruding upper lip—he instead altered it just a bit, and became known as Wild Bill Hickok, one of the most famous gunslingers of the American West.

Why are wedding cakes so tall?

Gold Rimmed Serving Pedestal | UncommonGoods

Gold Rimmed Serving Pedestal 

Those hilarious videos you’ve seen online, where hapless newlyweds accidentally topple their towering wedding cakes, are actually right in line with a centuries-old tradition. Before wedding cakes as we know them were developed, a tradition in medieval England was to celebrate a marriage with a towering pile of sweetened buns. The bread was heaped high on the table, and if the couple could reach across for a kiss without knocking any over, they were said to be guaranteed a life of happiness together. It seems likely that the guests would leave the stack just short enough for the bride and groom to succeed—and yet, the entertainment value of seeing it fall must have been a sore temptation. So, perhaps all of these collapsing confections in the videos are not accidents, but exactly what the wedding cake was originally designed to do.

See more Uncommon Knowledge

Gift Guides

It’s Coffee Time: 8 Uncommon Facts About the World’s Favorite Bean

June 23, 2015

Summer is a telling time for coffee drinkers; the heat naturally flushes out the untrustworthy fair-weather “It’s too hot for coffee” types from their ruse and lets us know who we can really trust. I started drinking coffee as a kid – funny given a popular myth regarding the discovery of the bean’s stimulating properties. Coffee originates from Ethiopia, allegedly first noticed by a goat herder named Kaldi whose goats began acting jumpy after eating several wild coffee cherries. The bean has since grown to become an essential part of global food culture – the second most widely traded commodity after crude oil – and the basis of millions of people’s livelihoods (and others’ mornings).

In honor of one of the world’s favorite beverages, we’ve compiled 8 coffee facts about our favorite gifts that will have coffee lovers buzzing no matter how they take it.

Coffee Cold Brew Gift Set

1.) Cooler than you think: It’s never too hot for coffee, but for those who are after a refreshing and revitalizing afternoon drink, cold brew is for you! Plus, cold brew coffee may actually be more flavorful! When coffee grounds are exposed to hot water, acidic oils are extruded that don’t dissolve at lower temperatures. This gives coffee its bitter kick, but masks some of the fruity, aromatic flavor retained by cold brew. Check out our gift lab to see the Cold Brew Set in action!

 

 

The Coffee Towel

2.) Mornings on tap: Here in North America, one third of tap water used for drinking is used to brew coffee! Soak up a little extra with this towel – perfect to hang nearby your coffee station to dry mugs between mornings.

 

 

 

Coffee Explorer Set

3.) Sadly, you can’t wear the Coffee Belt: Though the most coffee is consumed by the global north, coffee can only be grown in a region straddling the equator known as the ‘Coffee Belt’ (or Bean Belt). The Coffee Explorer Set takes you on a tour of the belt with four varieties from Ethiopia, Brazil, Colombia, and Honduras without having to board an airplane. That could get expensive quickly; the only U.S. state in which coffee can be successfully grown for commercial purposes is Hawaii, which explains why backyard bean growing hasn’t quite taken off.

 

  

 

Coffee Liqueur Making Kit

4.) Before on-plane temperature control: This DIY take on coffee liqueur promises a different kind of buzz than your morning cup of Joe. Coffee Liqueur’s distant, freckle-faced cousin, Irish coffee, was conceived in the 1940s by the head chef at now-Shannon International Airport to warm American passengers on cold winter flights. When asked if they were being served Brazilian coffee, the chef labeled it ‘Irish Coffee.’

 

 

Le Café Personalized Art

5.) Stimulating more than your mornings: Turn your kitchen or dining room into your own café – maybe you’ll spark an important intellectual movement! European coffee houses, precursor to modern cafés, are often credited with helping to spark the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries for their role as public places for discussion. Plus, coffee benefits short term memory recall!

 

 

Ceramic Greek Coffee Cup

6.) Classic CoffΣΣ: Immortalized in ceramic, the classic Greek motif coffee cup is an iconic symbol of the New York City morning rush. Makes a perfect gift for a coffee loving New Yorker, who drinks (on average) close to a whopping seven times more coffee than inhabitants of other major cities!

 

 

Café Collection Soaps Set

7.) Caffeine Vaccine: With these soaps active in the shower and caffeine active in the bloodstream, you’ll be extra safe from unwanted microbes! Long credited speculatively with antiseptic properties, a 2011 study indicated that caffeine may be more effective than ampicillin at inhibiting bacteria like staphylococcus, salmonella and E. coli.

 

 

Espresso Pop Chart

8.) Who needs unions when the boss has a bean machine?: Depicting 23 different kinds of espresso, the Pop Chart serves as an aesthetic reference for any espresso lover! Just don’t spend too much time staring at it with mouth-watering daydreams of bold, Italian goodness – espresso was first invented in the early 1900s as a means to decrease the time laborers took on their coffee breaks. Get back to work!

 

 

The Uncommon Life

Celebrating The Bard’s Birthday: 5 Uncommon Facts About Shakespeare

April 22, 2015

Shakespeare Printable Party Kit | UncommonGoods

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, so it’s pretty impressive that someone who was born 451 years ago is still influencing pop culture today. (On the other hand, he’s had plenty of time to make a lasting impression!) Not only do we owe words, commonly used phrases, and even a popular first name to The Bard, here at UncommonGoods we also owe him for inspiring our Shakespearean Soiree Printable Party Kit. Our kit is packed with fun Shakespeare facts, making it a great way to sneak a little nerdery into your party. (Bonus fun fact, “nerd” actually wasn’t coined by Shakespeare, the credit for that one goes to Dr. Seuss.)

We worked with our friends at Mental_Floss to find the perfect pieces of trivia to incorporate into the kit and give us ideas for the decorations, games, and party accessories included. So, in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday, we’re sharing a few of the posts that helped us make sure our stories weren’t bogus.

Shakespeare

Image Credit: THINKSTOCK/ERIN MCCARTHY via Mental_Floss

1.) “To Be or Not to Be?”

Our cupcake toppers feature a play on this extremely well-known quote from Hamlet, which continues, “that is the question—/Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer/The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,/ Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles…” It turns out that line was once something else entirely. According to Bad Quartos: What Shakespeare Could’ve Been, the line appeared as “To be or not to be. Aye, there’s the point. To die, to sleep—is that all? Aye, all.” in an edition that was available between 1603 and 1604. The cause of this lesser known soliloquy? Piracy! Bootlegged copies of Shakespeare’s plays made their way into bookstores after shady playgoers copied down what they could remember and then printed their knockoff versions.

2.) “Sweets to the Sweet”

This one comes from Hamlet as well, but how could we resist using this perfect quote on our treat bag? We learned from 7 Geeky-Cool Translations of Hamlet that Hamlet has been translated into hundreds of languages. It’s no surprise that such a famous play has been so widely translated, but we were surprised (and oh so pleased) to see it translated into Klingon, Emoji, and even a Lego animation.

3.) “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”

Our Pin the Soap on Lady Macbeth game is definitely less gruesome than The Scottish Play, but fans of the tragedy will recall that that murder and mayhem run rampant through the Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is riddled with guilt and attempts to scrub clean a blood stain that isn’t actually there. This is pretty dark stuff, but there is a bright side. The article Out, Damned Spot! explains the Macbeth effect , “a psychological phenomena where cleanliness lessens guilty feelings.”

Macbeth | UncommonGoods

4.) Titania and Oberon

Titania and Oberon are perhaps best known as the King and Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the comedy featured in our “playbill” guest book. Although this list of 12 Distant Places in the Solar System (And What They’re Named After) isn’t specifically about famous fictional couple, it does feature their celestial namesakes. Titania and Oberon are also moons of Uranus. Not only are all of Uranus’ moons traditionally named for characters created by Shakespeare or Alexander Pope, their geographical features are also named for people and places in Shakespeare’s work.

5.) Who Will Be Named King?

The crown we chose for our party hats was based on King Lear, and while a specific Mental_Floss post didn’t point us to the design, we were happy to learn from 13 Titles Inspired by Shakespeare Phrases that a line from the play indirectly influenced the title of The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. Other authors who looked to Shakepeare to help title their work include David Foster Wallace, Ray Bradbury, and Mental_Floss host John Green.

Baxter as King Lear | UncommonGoodsBaxter as King Lear


Print the Kit | UncommonGoods

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