In the Beginning: Today we're seeing Red

Well, almost. With just 3 (three!) days to go until our new book's release, mental_floss is happy to present another origin story you're bound to dig. Enjoy!

The Red Carpet

IMG_1571.preview.JPGIf you want a black and white explanation for the public obsession with celebrity, it helps to start by understanding the red.

Great Feets

Hollywood actors are often considered American royalty, and as it turns out, they have the carpeting to match. The first mention of the red carpet we could find dates back to the story of Agamemnon, written by the Greek playwright Aeschylus in 485 BCE. In the play, Mycenaean King Agamemnon's wife tricks him into walking across a red carpet fit only for the "feet of the gods."Red-tinted colors, especially deep purplish reds, were especially admired in the early Greek and Roman societies because they were both expensive and scarce. In fact, throughout recorded history, royals and others of high rank have used the colors red and purple to symbolize how important and wealthy they were. The use of the red carpet appeared again in the 1600s, when Jahangir, a Mughal emperor, visited his brother-in-law on New Year's Day. His brother-in-law carpeted the road from the palace to his house with gold brocades and rich velvets to prevent his royal feet from ever touching the ground.

Americans See Red

Over time, rolling out the red carpet for special or honored people trickled down from royalty. In1821, U.S. president James Monroe became the first to receive the treatment with a red carpet rolled out to the river to guide his path.

more after the jump...

New York Central's luxury train, the 20th Century Limited, debuted in 1902 establishing the "redcarpet treatment" not only for royals and dignitaries but for anyone receiving special treatment. The train traveled the smooth water-level route from New York to Chicago and the railroad rolled out a red carpet to welcome passengers onto the train.As for Hollywood, the red carpet first emerged in 1922 when the famous exhibitor Sid Grauman opened up the Egyptian Theatre (seven years before the first Academy Awards ceremony). And while the Academy Awards have become the best known use of the red carpet in history, with virtually every famous starwalking its length at one time or another, the question remains: So, how does Oscar's red carpet arrive each year?

The answer is: not very glamorously, but plenty safe, in dozens of rolls wrapped in plastic on flat bed trucks. Strangely enough, the actual shade of red is a secret, designed by the academy to be a slightly purplish red that appears more reddish on TV.

Rolling It Out

Though the process of rolling out a carpet sounds like it would be simple enough, the process takes hours of meticulous labor. The crew unrolls the rugs on their hands and knees, then cuts the edges with a huge putty knife to make sure they match perfectly. Another worker follows the process to scoop up the remnants to make sure they can't be stolen for color copying or eBay sales. In all, it takes more than 20 men a full two days to install the carpet (including ironing every seam after everything is in place). Just like celebrities keep stylists on hand in case of emergency, so does the carpet itself. One expert always appears at the show in tuxedo to ensure that the carpet looks its best and never forms a rumple that might trip someone famous. In all, the modern-day film stars probably receive a more detailed and luxurious red carpet welcome than most monarchs or dignitaries in history.

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Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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