CLOSE
Original image

8 Not-So-Famous Firsts

Original image

Ever wondered who received the first Social Security Card? Who was involved in the first wet T-shirt contest? Today's your lucky day.

1. The First Hamburger Chain

McDonald's, Burger King and that girl with the braids are better known, but they were all latecomers to the game. Walter Anderson and Billy Ingram partnered up to employ Henry Ford's assembly line model in a restaurant setting. They opened their first White Castle in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, a time when Americans were skeptical about the wholesomeness of ground beef. Anderson put the complete "making of" story in full view of the customer; they watched as a cook formed the ground beef into a patty and placed it on the grill. The stark white and shiny chrome theme in the building's décor was also a subliminal hint as to the purity of the food. Sales at that first restaurant were so overwhelming that they soon opened more White Castles (each with the same interior and exterior architecture), first in Kansas and then in Nebraska and Minnesota.

2. The First Social Security Card

John David Sweeney, Jr., of Westchester County, New York, was the person who was issued Social Security Number 055-09-0001 in November 1936. When the Social Security Board first started their plan to issue numbers, they worked in conjunction with the Postal Service. SS-5 forms were sent out to employers across the country for their employees to fill out. The completed forms were either mailed or returned to the local post office in person, and then a Social Security Number would be assigned and a card typed up. The first 1,000 cards were mailed out simultaneously, so there is no way to accurately determine who actually physically received the first Social Security Card. The records for those 1,000 cards were sent to the main processing center in Baltimore, where they began the process of becoming a permanent file in which the number holder's earnings could be recorded. The head of the Division of Accounting Operations pulled the top form off of the pile (which was John Sweeney's) and declared it to be the official first Social Security Record. Sweeney died at the age of 61 and never collected any Social Security benefits, but his widow did until she passed away in 1982.

3. Automobile Insurance

old-carGilbert J. Loomis, a mechanic in Westfield, Massachusetts, built his own one-cylinder steam-powered car in 1896. He had an eye on starting his own automotive manufacturing company, but in order to get the ball rolling, he needed to drive his prototype over unmarked macadam roads to meet potential investors in various states. The potential for damage to his auto, oblivious pedestrians, and horse-drawn carriages during such extended journeys was huge, so he approached several insurance companies to purchase some sort of coverage for his vehicle. One company president expressed the feeling of many in the industry when he stated, "I'm not underwriting a gasoline can on wheels!" On October 20, 1897, Travelers Insurance took a chance on Loomis and sold him an automobile policy for $7.50 (about $190 in today's dollars) which provided $1,000 in liability coverage.

4. Class Name 101

The first recorded use of an introductory class being designated as "101" was in a University of Buffalo course catalog dated 1929. However, it wasn't until the early 1930s—when students started regarding a university degree as a means to a better job and schools added more specialized classes to their curriculum—that universities in the U.S. started using digits to identify their courses. Students were also traveling further afield after graduation in search of work, so it became important for a potential employer to be able to compare candidates: Was a passing grade in Cost Accounting 203 at Kent State the same as one in Business Accounting 4 at the University of Michigan?

Eventually, colleges started using a more uniform three-digit designation, in which the first digit indicated the academic level (1=Freshman, 2=Sophomore, etc.). The second digit usually represented a department (English, Science, etc.) and the third the level of the class within the department. These were not hard and fast rules, and still vary from school to school. However, as the three-digit system became more commonplace, it seemed that "101" always represented a basic beginning course, no matter what the discipline. By the late 1960s, the phrase was starting to enter the vernacular at large, outside of the collegiate realm.

5. Real Person in a Feminine Hygiene Ad

kotex-ad
Even during the scandalous Roaring 20s, when women were bobbing their hair and baring their arms, products for "that time of the month" were advertised only very discreetly in women's magazines. And until 1928, those ads featured line drawings or pastel paintings of females, never real women. But that taboo ended when photographer Edward Steichen sold a photo he'd shot of model and Vogue cover girl Lee Miller to the Kotex Company. Miller's modeling career in the U.S. was essentially kaput thanks to the scandalous placement of her photograph, and she fled to Paris where she studied photography and eventually became a renowned photographer in her own right.

6. Telephone Entertainment

Which came first, 1-800-PARTYON or 976-BABE? Actually, when telephone entertainment started out, it was geared toward lonely people seeking spiritual fulfillment rather than frisky young singles. On Thanksgiving Eve 1955, Rev. R.R. Schwambach, the pastor of Bethel Tabernacle Church in Evansville, Indiana, rented a grey, typewriter-sized machine from Indiana Bell. He recorded a 43-second non-denominational prayer and hooked the gadget up to the church's telephone. An article in the November 23, 1955, edition of the Evansville Courier printed the phone number for "Dial-a-Prayer" and explained that folks feeling the need of comfort and inspiration could call at any hour, day or night. Rev. Schwambach thought he'd leave the machine up for the duration of the holiday weekend, but the service proved to be so popular (the phone company reported a backlog of some 5,000 calls and ordered the church to install additional lines) that he continued to record a new message every day. Similar services started popping up first at other churches in Indiana, then across the country.

7. Mainstream Use of "Gay" to Mean Homosexual

movie-002It's not quite clear when "gay" began to mean more than just happy. As early as the 18th century, the word was used to describe a person or place of looser-than-the-standard morals. "Gay Paree" and "gay divorcee" were common phrases of the time, which described the uninhibited fun had in the City of Lights and by recently unentangled folks. By the 1800s, a "gay house" had become a synonym for a brothel. In the early 1920s, both Gertrude Stein and Noel Coward had used the word "gay" to imply a homosexual in their prose, but the references were pretty much lost on anyone outside of the literary intelligentsia of that time. Mainstream America was formally introduced to the term in 1938, courtesy of the film Bringing up Baby. In one scene, Cary Grant is virtually being held hostage by Katharine Hepburn, who has sent all of his clothes to the cleaners. She provides him with one of her frilly dressing gown to wear, and when he later answers a knock at the door in that garb, he explains to the startled visitor, "I just went gay all of a sudden!"

8. Wet T-Shirt Contest

The first wet T-shirt contest wasn't held in some tropical sunny clime; it took place in January at a ski resort in Idaho. In 1969, a sales rep for a company called K2 hired a filmmaker to shoot some footage of professional skiers "hotdogging" on the slopes in Sun Valley. The 12-minute film was used as a promotional tool to sell K2's new line of skis, and the distributors loved it. They clamored for a new film the next year, and the next. In January 1971, production on the third film was wrapping up when a K2 rep informed the filmmaker that the following week was "airline week" at Sun Valley, and gave him 200 K2 T-shirts to give away to the stewardesses (as they were still called at the time) who would be attending. Officials got together and decided to award a prize to whomever looked the "best" in a T-shirt.

After a few rounds of drinks, they decided to add a degree of "difficulty" to the contest—the ladies would have to dive into the resort's heated pool clad in the shirt, and extra points would be awarded if she did so sans brassiere. Not surprisingly, the event was a roaring success. K2 staged a similar event later that year at the Red Onion in Aspen, and that time Playboy had photographers on the sidelines. Many of the participants were later featured in a full-color spread.
* * * * *
Have you ever wondered about the origin of some mundane or ordinary (or even unusual or disturbing) item or concept? My equally inquiring mind is at your service!

Original image
Getty
arrow
Art
A Forgotten George Gershwin Musical Just Made Its American Debut
Original image
Getty

In 1982, dozens of crates containing handwritten musical manuscripts—inked with the scribbles of Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin—were discovered in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. Many of the scores contained lost or unpublished songs that had not been performed in decades, if ever. In an interview with The New York Times, Miles Kreuger, the president and founder of the Institute of the American Musical, called it "one of the monumental discoveries in the history of American musical theater."

Included in the crates were about 70 Gershwin tunes, including an autograph score to his largely forgotten 1924 musical, Primrose.

George Gershwin was one of the most popular, and important, American composers of the 20th century. His music, prized for being equally adventurous and accessible, was chameleonic. It seemed to fit in everywhere, comfortably toggling the jazz, theatrical, and symphonic worlds. In the theater, Gershwin helped establish a musical idiom that dominated for decades. (Fun fact: His Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.) In basement jazz clubs, much of his work became the bedrock of the Great American Songbook, the launching pad for generations of jazz musicians. In the classical concert hall, his symphonic work remains wildly popular—the pillar of Pops concerts.

But Gershwin’s reputation as the "All-American" composer belies the fact that a significant number of early staged scores remain missing. Some of Gershwin's Broadway music has not been heard in nearly a century. In the case of Primrose, it's been 92 years.

That's not unusual. During Gershwin's heyday, most showtunes vanished the moment the final curtain closed. "Musicals back then were like comic books," Michael D. Miller, founder and president of the Operetta Foundation, tells Mental Floss. "People waited and waited for the next one, and when it came out, the public devoured it. And when it was all said and done, they threw it out."

Take Gershwin’s other early Broadway shows: Many parts to the scores of Dangerous Maid (1921), Our Nell (1922), The Rainbow (1923), and Half Past Eight (1918) have disappeared. "If they didn't make it into one of the warehouses that belonged to companies that rented out scores, the scores might have just been destroyed," says Michael Owen, Consulting Archivist to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts. The practice has left behind a trail of musical breadcrumbs. "That's the case with Gershwin's pre-1924 shows," Owen said. "There might be one fully-orchestrated song from a musical that still exists. Or there might be half a show that exists, but only as a piano with vocals. Or there might be some lyrics without piano, or piano without lyrics."

The same goes for recordings. The truth is, despite Gershwin's popularity, you can't listen to much of his work as it originally sounded. According to Miller, even recordings of tunes that Gershwin wrote at the height of his popularity, like those in Treasure Girl and Show Girl, are AWOL. Owen estimates that 25 percent of both George and his brother Ira Gershwin's oeuvre has not been recorded. "If you're talking 1923 and earlier, it gets very skimpy."

Primrose is lucky in that regard. A complete piano-vocal score was published when the show debuted in London, and cast recordings were sold. The musical simply slipped into obscurity, and the score plunged with it. It has never been performed in America—until now.


At its heart, Primrose is a tale of unwanted relationships—and a tribute to the lengths people will go to find happiness. In it, the novelist Hilary Vane uses his imaginative talents to cook up real-life schemes to unchain a web of unhappy characters from undesired paramours, freeing them to run off with their true loves. (Along the way, there are some cheerful Arthur Sullivan-esque songs, including one about the headless Mary, Queen of Scots.)

The play, which debuted on London's West End, brought Gershwin to Britain in 1924. He sailed the Atlantic with seven polished tunes already stuffed in his suitcase, many of which were attempts to write in the style of classic Edwardian romps. "I have inserted several numbers in 6/8 time, because the English are a 6/8 nation," he told the London Standard. "The Americans are a 4/4 nation and their music is essentially the fox-trot. But the English, who are used to good lyrics, like the 6/8 rhythm, which approaches most closely to ordinary speech."

The result—a unique fusion of brassy across-the-pond blue notes and British patter song—was distinctly different from anything playing on either side of the Atlantic. The English playwright Noël Coward was gobsmacked. He called the score's variety "extraordinary."

The great significance of Primrose, however, is that Gershwin not only wrote the music—he also orchestrated three tunes himself. Gershwin's orchestration skills have long been a point of controversy. Classical critics, in a fit of anti-showbiz snobbery, griped that he lacked the knowledge to write for large ensembles. Indeed, Gershwin's first stab at opera, Blue Monday, and his famed Rhapsody in Blue were orchestrated by other musicians.

It's here, on Primrose, that Gershwin cut his teeth writing for large ensembles. "These orchestrations are considered to settle a scholarly controversy—when did George learn orchestration?" writes theater expert James Ross Moore in the The George Gershwin Reader. These newly honed orchestration skills would make history, helping Gershwin write pieces that eventually cemented his place on the Mount Rushmore of American composers: his "Concerto in F," American in Paris, and all of Porgy and Bess.

Primrose saw 255 performances on the West End and even hopped to Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. But the Great American Composer's show never appeared in the United States. After premiering down under in 1925, Primrose was forgotten—interest wasn't rekindled until the handwritten scores popped up in that Secaucus warehouse 57 years later.

In 1987, the Library of Congress dusted off the recently discovered score and hosted a performance of Primrose. The play itself, however, was not staged: The dialogue-rich script was cut. Conversely, in 2003, Musicals Tonight!—a New York City group dedicated to reviving classic musicals—performed the musical, but, this time, the orchestrations were cut in favor of a lonely piano. Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the Village Voice, wrote that, "Enough comes across to make you see what the work could be, in the hands of knowing professionals, as part of a living tradition."

Well, pros have finally gotten their hands on it. Michael Miller and his colleagues spent days sifting through the Gershwin archives at the Library of Congress and reassembled the entire original score.

Now, for the first time in 92 years—and the first time in the United States—the curtain has finally opened on a fully-orchestrated, fully-staged production of Primrose, revived under the care of the Ohio Light Opera. Based in Wooster, Ohio (about an hour’s drive south of Cleveland, and a shorter jaunt from Cuyahoga National Park), the Ohio Light Opera will put on seven more performances between now and August 11. I had the privilege of taking in a dress rehearsal, and I can verify that it's a hoot.

As for the sea of other incomplete Gershwin works, there is hope. Scholars are currently working to bring them—all of them—back. At the University of Michigan, folks leading The Gershwin Initiative are working to publish critical editions (including full scores) to all of George and Ira Gershwin's works—including their embryonic stage pieces. (Perhaps they will resurrect the missing score to The Rainbow, which now stands alone as the only Gershwin musical to never enjoy an American premiere.)

In the meantime, Gershwin fans and music history buffs looking to take a road trip should look no further than Ohio: Click here for dates and tickets.

Original image
American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain
arrow
History
The Bold Van Buren Sisters, Who Blazed a Trail Across America
Original image
American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain

Descendants of American president Martin Van Buren, Adeline and Augusta Van Buren were born into a life of privilege that assured them the safe and respectable existences of society women. But with America on the brink of war, the sisters ditched their gilded cages for a cross-country adventure they hoped would change their beloved nation for the better.

By July 1916, America was readying to enter World War I, and 32-year-old Augusta and 26-year-old Adeline were eager to do their part as motorcycling military dispatch riders, transporting crucial communications to the front line. Women were flat-out barred from combat duty in the U.S., but as bikers with thousands of hours logged on the roaring vehicles, the Van Burens felt they were uniquely qualified for such arduous and dangerous missions. And they were determined to prove it. By the end of their journey, they would become the first women to travel across the country on two solo motorcycles.

Fittingly, Addie and Gussie—as they preferred to be called—set forth on Independence Day. From Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay racetrack, they headed to the Lincoln Highway, which ran from Times Square in Manhattan to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. They had top-of-the-line bikes: $275 Indian Power Plus motorcycles that boasted Firestone "non-skid" tires and gas headlights that would allow them to barrel through the darkest nights. They had an indomitable spirit. They had each other. And they'd need all the courage and resources they could muster for this daunting endeavor.

“There were no road maps west of the Mississippi," their great-nephew and historian Robert Van Buren explained to the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram of the sisters' epic journey. "The roads were just cow passes, dirt trails, wagon trails, things like that.” The Lincoln Highway was far from the paved superhighways of today. Heavy rain proved a major problem, wiping out roads and throwing the Van Burens off-course and off their bikes. “They had no helmets. They just had goggles with a leather cap and leathers on. They were really exposed to the elements,” Van Buren said. “They had a tough time.” Yet weather and murky maps weren't their only obstacles.

Just west of Chicago, the motorcycling mavens were pulled over by police—not for the way they were driving but for the way they were dressed. Though women's fashion was shifting from corsets to more comfy attire, dresses were still the norm. In some states it was actually illegal for women to wear pants. So the Van Burens' military-style leggings and leather riding breeches got them arrested again and again by confounded cops. Between arrests and weather delays, the sisters' one-month journey stretched into two.

By August, Addie and Gussie reached Colorado's Rocky Mountains and earned their first record, becoming the first women to reach the 14,109-foot summit of Pike's Peak by motorized vehicle. Running behind schedule, the sisters abandoned their plan to ride north through Wyoming, favoring a more direct path through the Rockies. Unfortunately, relentless rain transformed the mountains’ dirt paths to sucking mud that mercilessly trapped their tires. Exhausted, freezing, and filthy from their fruitless efforts to free their wheels, the dejected duo was forced to abandon their bikes and seek out help on foot. Hours and miles later, the sisters slid out of the darkness upon the small mining town of Gilman, Colorado. They were quite the sight to the awed miners: two angel-faced ladies draped in leather and caked in mud.

The miners offered them rest and food, then helped the sisters free their bikes. But another brush with disaster came 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, where the winds had whisked away the desert's path, and the pair was woefully low on water. Thankfully, their luck held up again: A prospector came along who not only had a horse-drawn cart packed with supplies, but also a keen sense of direction to get them back on their way.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

 
Exhausted and elated, Addie and Gussie Van Buren reached San Francisco at long last on September 2, having traveled 5500 miles, and completed their journey on September 8 after arriving in Los Angeles. And still, they pressed on, traveling down to the Mexican border and Tijuana.

Their remarkable ride earned headlines, but much of the media coverage disappointed. Leading motorcycle magazines focused on the bikes, not the bikers. Others ignored the purpose and historical import of their journey, publishing puff pieces about the ladies' curious "vacation." Worse yet, The Denver Post accused the sisters of exploiting World War I to abandon their duties at home to "display their feminine counters in nifty khaki and leather uniforms." But most vexing, the U.S. government was unmoved, and rejected the Van Burens' application for dispatch service.

Following their cross-country adventure, the boundary-busting sisters pursued new passions. In a time when female lawyers were unheard of, Addie earned her law degree at prestigious New York University. Meanwhile, Gussie became a pilot, flying in Amelia Earhart's Ninety-Nines, an international organization dedicated to creating a supportive environment and opportunities for aviatrixes. With these accomplishments, each sister added credence to Gussie's famous maxim, "Woman can, if she will."

While their journey didn't deliver the immediate impact the sisters had hoped for, today they are remembered as pioneers for women and motorcyclists alike. Addie and Gussie's courageous spirit and intense independence is celebrated by descendants and admirers who have kept their legacy alive through cross-country rides that traced their path on the trip's 90th and 100th anniversaries. Plus, both the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum's Hall of Fame in South Dakota and the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame of Ohio have posthumously inducted the Van Burens as esteemed members.

Both Addie and Gussie enjoyed full lives with careers that thrilled them, and family that loved and still rally around them, decades after their deaths at ages 59 and 75 respectively. In their time, these headstrong and hearty sisters witnessed the passing of the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote. They cheered the female patriots who rushed into the workforce as World War II demanded. They relished in a world that was changing to meet them, the industrious, rebellious, and brave Van Burens.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios