It’s the Simple Things

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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We were visiting friends Mark and Monica the other night when Mark asked us, out of the blue, if we knew just how handy back scratchers were. Asked what he wanted for a gift one time, his only request was a $1.99 back scratcher. Quite frankly, I had never given back scratchers much consideration before. Who knew what capabilities this little gem held!

As he pointed out, it is one of the simplest tools that can make life so much easier and is not necessarily for just scratching one’s back. Everyone has their own nest at the end of the day. You know, your little comfort zone that surrounds your favorite chair that includes your glasses, reading material, coverlet, slippers, and whatever else that defines “your” space. A back scratcher can retrieve your favorite reading material, help you swivel in your chair away from the TV to give someone else your undivided attention, pick up that something that you invariably drop on the floor each night, and gently tap someone on the shoulder to get their attention. Who knew back scratchers were so versatile! Oh, did I mention that they can also scratch that annoying itch that is just always out of reach — the purpose for which they were initially designed?

It is not the major inventions but rather the little ones that we take for granted . Without them, our lives could be so much more complicated. Back scratchers themselves have a unique little history. Of course, the earliest ones were merely tree branches that primates used to get to that untouchable itch. Primitive man mimicked this behavior, and the original concept of the back scratcher was born. In the past, they were elaborately decorated and hung from the waist as a fashion statement.

Now, most back scratchers exist as practical devices to “scratch that itch.” They can be as simple as a stick or as unusual as replica zombie hands or fashioned after bat, bird, or other animal claws. Modern ones are fashioned from wood, bone, horns, claws, brass, stainless steel, metal, or plastic.

The best ones combine form and function and, although most are mass produced, some are individually artisan handcrafted. One unique brand is named ItchThatBitch (I kid you not!) and is crafted from stainless steel and decorative noble metals. They are not cookie-cutter, stamped, trade-show handouts, but rather unique, handmade, serial-numbered, heirloom products. Serial-numbered back scratchers … really?

This made me wonder about other little products that we use almost daily that, although given hardly any thought, would make our lives more complicated if we did not have them. Think about the safety pin. How many times would you have given any amount of money just to have one because that button or zipper always pops at the most inconvenient time? Invariably though, whenever we need one, we will never find one, not in the bottom of a purse, not in the junk drawer, nowhere.

Walter Hunt is credited as inventing the safety pin in 1849 while he was fiddling with a piece of wire while trying to find a way to pay a $15 debt. Unfortunately, he was not very well schooled in selling or marketing/ so he sold the idea for 400 dollars. That was chump change considering that the little wires — curled in the middle to form a base and consisting of clasps and pins and so much safer to use than straight pins — are a huge business today.

The same is true of the paper clip. How many offices would function without these small pieces of wire bent into double oval shapes? Developed in 1867 by Samuel Fay, these wonders of simplicity and function had to wait to be born until the invention of steel wire, which was elastic enough to be stretched, bent, and twisted.

How about rubber bands? These simplistic bands of rubber are cheap, reliable, and strong. They hold paper together, prevent long hair from falling in faces, make playful weapons, and even provide an easy way to castrate baby male livestock. How diversified is that?

Their humble beginnings are traced back to 1819 when Thomas Hancock, along with his brothers, was in the stagecoach business. He wanted better ways to keep the passengers dry so he made rubber suspenders, gloves, shoes, etc. However, he noticed that he wasted a lot of material so he devised his “pickling machine,” so named so people would not guess what he was really up to. The machine ripped the leftover rubber into shreds, matted it together and then made it into bands.

It would not be until 1923, though, that rubber bands would gain popularity. William Spencer of Alliance, Ohio, noticed that the pages of the Akron Beacon Journal — the local newspaper — would blow apart and be scattered over all the neighbors’ lawns. He knew where to get rubber pieces from discarded inner tubes, since the Goodyear Rubber Company was based in Akron. He cut the rubber into strips and began to wrap the papers with it. The idea soon caught on, and in no time he began to sell to office supply and paper stores.

Even toilet paper is something we take for granted. Joseph Gayetty is credited with this invention in 1857 when he introduced his “pre-moistened flat sheets medicated with aloe.” It was a giant step up from leaves, corn cobs, and the Sears and Roebuck catalog (which was affectionately known at the time as “Rears and Sorebutt Catalog”). The Farmer’s Almanac even had holes in each copy so it could be hung on a hook. After all, they were only good for one year.

The production of paper products sometimes left splinters in the final goods. So, in 1935, it was hailed as a major improvement when Northern Tissue Company advertised their “splinter free” toilet tissue. Ahh, it is the little comforts.

Little things, perhaps even more so than larger and more sophisticated items, make our daily lives so much easier. These are the things that we take for granted until one is not available. Only then do we realize the importance of these simple inventions.

As for back scratchers, Mark made a believer out of me. The only thing that I would expound on is that maybe they should be just a tad bit longer. I can’t … quite … reach … the paper. With a back scratcher, I never have to even consider getting out of my chair to get anything!

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