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Great Moments In Kazoo History

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Image courtesy of shibainu's Flickr stream

The kazoo is an under-appreciated instrument. To remedy that fact, fans from across America have united to celebrate National Kazoo Day (today!), a day when the lowly humming instrument can finally receive the credit it deserves. Here are a few fascinating points in the history of the great musical equalizer.

The history of the kazoo is a bit convoluted, as the actual date of its creation is up for debate. African tribes had used similar vibrating, voice-altering instruments for ceremonial purposes for hundreds of years before the instrument was introduced in America. But these animal-hide-covered instruments still don’t quite qualify as a kazoo.

The most popular origin story says that these African instruments served for the inspiration for the kazoo, which was introduced by an African-American named Alabama Vest in 1840. The original prototype was created for him by German clockmaker Thaddeus Von Clegg. Vest then exhibited the kazoo at the 1852 Georgia State Fair, calling it the “Down-South Submarine.” At the fair, Emil Sorg spotted the kazoo and worked with Vest to put together a mass-production version that wasn’t released for another half a century.

The problem with this story is that there is no actual documentation associating either Vest or Sorg with the invention of the instrument. That doesn’t mean it’s not at least partially true, but if it is, it’s impossible to say which parts are fact or fiction. It certainly seems weird that something so simple would take over fifty years to get in mass production.

The first documented invention of the kazoo occurred when Warren Herbert Frost applied for a patent in 1883. But this version was not the simple boat-shaped creation we all know and love (that's it above). Indeed, it wasn’t until 1902 before this more classic version was patented by Mr. George D. Smith.

Within a few decades of Smith’s patent, a number of new factories were in operation, pumping out metal kazoos for the masses. One of those factories is even still in business today, creating the instruments (almost) the exact same way they did when the factory opened in 1916. Kazoo fans can even visit the factory, now called The Kazoo Factory and Museum.

The kazoo quickly became popular in America, dubbed the “most democratic” instrument in the world as just about anyone can pick one up and play it right away. A number of blues, jazz, vaudeville and bluegrass acts worked the instrument into their repertoire, and a kazoo can be heard on a record for the first time on the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recording of “Crazy Blues,” taped in 1921. While it's more low pitch than we're used to hearing the instrument played, you can hear the kazoo solo around the 2:00 mark.

The Mound City Blue Blowers were one of the most famous bands to incorporate kazoo into their music, achieving quite a few hits in the 1920s. Non-kazoo operating members of their band played a wax-paper-covered comb, a banjo, a suitcase played with whiskbrooms and a guitar.

The Mills Brothers, a vocal group who later went on to record over 2000 songs and release three gold records, even started out as a vaudeville act playing kazoo together. They might not have made it big with the kazoo, but they may not have made it anywhere if they didn’t start out playing the instrument together.

After a short time, though, the instrument lost its popularity among professional musicians, who recognized its serious limitations. A few decades after it achieved mainstream success, the instrument was largely restricted to amateurs and comedy acts.

Even so, it has still found its place in the fine arts community here and there. For example, Frank Loesser incorporated the instrument into the orchestra score for his 1961 musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The kazoo is played during a scene in an executive washroom, where it's supposed to sound like an electric razor that happens to shave in time to the music. If you don't want to watch the whole clip above, just skip to 3:39 to hear the kazoo.

A decade later, kazoos made their biggest mark thanks to David Bedford’s avant-garde piece With 100 Kazoos. In this 1971 performance, the audience members were provided kazoos, which allowed them to play along with the professional instrumental ensemble.

More famously, The Beatles use kazoos in their song “Lovely Rita” and Jimi Hendrix used the instrument in his song “Crosstown Traffic” to help accentuate the blown-out speaker sound he was looking for. Frank Zappa was also a fan, incorporating the sound whenever he wanted to add a comedic touch to his songs.

Barbara Stewart was one of the most famous kazooists of the last hundred years. She started out as a classically trained singer and then moved on to form a quartet called “Kazoophony.” Ms. Stewart may be the only person on earth to be considered a “kazoo virtuoso,” and appeared at such venues as the Carnegie Hall and The Tonight Show. In fact, if you want to improve your kazooing, you might want to check out Stewart’s books, The Complete How to Kazoo and How to Kazoo.

Ms. Stewart passed away in September of last year, but before she died, she did make one last contribution to the art of kazoo playing. On March 14, 2011, she led the audience of Royal Albert Hall in a performance that broke the Guinness World Record for Largest Kazoo Ensemble, with an amazing 3,910 participants. It's not the most harmonious song you'll ever hear, but for having almost 4,000 musicians, it's still pretty impressive.

While the instrument may never get the recognition of the guitar, the tuba or the violin, the kazoo is still the only instrument just about anyone can learn right off the bat.

One final note, for those who just can’t get enough kazoo history, The Kazoo Museum in Beaufort, South Carolina is a great place to visit as it features one of the largest kazoo collections in the world, along with a variety of information on the instrument’s fascinating history.

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Ramones Karaoke, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
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Fake It Until You Make It: 10 Artificial Ruins
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Ramones Karaoke, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The love of ruins, sometimes called ruinophilia, has for centuries inspired the creation of clever fakes—a host of sham facades and hollowed-out castle shells found on grand English, European, and even American estates. The popularity of constructing artificial ruins was at its peak during the 18th and 19th centuries, but architects occasionally still incorporate them today.

Why build a structure that is already crumbling? Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the popularity of counterfeit ruins was influenced by two factors—a classical education that enforced the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome, and the extended tour of Europe (known as The Grand Tour) that well-to-do young men and women took after completing their education. Travelers might start in London or France and roam as far as the Middle East, but the trip almost always included Italy and a chance to admire Roman ruins. More than a few wealthy travelers returned home longing to duplicate those ruins, either to complement a romantic landscape, to demonstrate wealth, or to provide a pretense of family history for the newly rich.

Here are a few romantic ruins constructed between the 18th and 21st centuries.

1. SHAM CASTLE // BATHAMPTON, ENGLAND

Sham Castle (shown above) is aptly named—it’s only a façade. The "castle," overlooking the English city of Bath, was created in 1762 to improve the view for Ralph Allen, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist as well as to provide jobs for local stonemasons. From a distance it looks like a castle ruin, but it's merely a wall that has two three-story circular turrets and a two-story square tower at either end. The castle is not the only folly (as such purely decorative architecture is often called) that Allen built. He also constructed a sham bridge on Serpentine Lake in what is now Prior Park Landscape Garden—the bridge can't be crossed, but provides a nice focal point for the lake. Today, Sham Castle is part of a private golf course.

2. WIMPOLE FOLLY // CAMBRIDGESHIRE, ENGLAND

Building a structure that looks as if it's crumbling does not preclude having to perform regular maintenance. The four-story Gothic tower known as Wimpole Folly in Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, England, was built 1768-72 for Philip Yorke, first Earl of Hardwicke and owner of the Wimpole Estate. Owned by Britain’s National Trust, the ruin threatened to truly crumble a few years ago, so restoration efforts were needed. The last restoration was so well done it won the 2016 European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage. The Wimpole Estate is now open to the public for walks and hikes.

3. CAPEL MANOR FOLLY // ENFIELD, ENGLAND

Capel Manor at Bulls Cross, Enfield, England has been the site of several grand homes since the estate’s first recorded mention in the 13th century, so visitors might be tempted to believe that the manor house's ruins date back at least a few centuries. But that sense of history is an illusion: The faux 15th-century house was built in 2010 to add visual appeal to the manor gardens, which have been open to the public since the 1920s.

4. ROMAN RUIN // SCHONBRUNN PALACE, VIENNA, AUSTRIA

The Roman Ruin was built as a garden ornament for the 1441-room Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, one of the most important monuments in Austria. The ruin was once called The Ruins of Carthage, after the ancient North African city defeated by Roman military force. But despite the illusion of antiquity, the ruins were created almost 2000 years after Carthage fell in 146 B.C.E. The ruin’s rectangular pool, framed by an intricate semi-circle arch, was designed in 1778 by the architect Johann Ferdinand Hetzendorf von Hohenberg, who modeled it on the Ancient Roman temple of Vespasian and Titus, which he had seen an engraving of.

5. THE RUINEBERG // POTSDAM, GERMANY

One of the earliest examples of artificial ruins in Germany was the complex of structures known as The Ruinenberg. Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, had a summer palace in Potsdam, near Berlin, that was said to rival Versailles. In 1748 Frederick commissioned a large fountain for the palace complete with artificial ruins. The waterworks part of his plan proved too difficult and was soon abandoned, but not before designer Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff constructed the ruins. The complex includes Roman pillars, a round temple, and the wall of a Roman theatre. Since 1927 the site has belonged to the Prussian Gardens and Palaces Foundation, Berlin-Brandenburg.

6. PARC MONCEAU // PARIS, FRANCE

Elegant Parc Monceau is located in the fashionable 8th arrondissement of Paris near the Champs-Elysees and Palais de l’Elysée. In 1778, the Duke of Chartres decided to build a mansion on land previously used for hunting. He loved English architecture and gardens, including the notion of nostalgic ruins, so he hired the architect Louis Carrogis Carmontelle to create an extravagant park complete with a Roman temple, antique statues, a Chinese bridge, a farmhouse, a Dutch windmill, a minaret, a small Egyptian pyramid, and some fake gravestones. The most notable feature of the park is a pond surrounded by Corinthian columns, now known as Colonnade de Carmontelle.

7. HAGLEY PARK CASTLE // WORCESTERSHIRE, ENGLAND

The ruins of the medieval castle at Hagley Park in Worcestershire are definitely fake, but they were built with debris from the real ruin of a neighboring abbey. The folly was commissioned by Sir George Lyttelton in 1747 and designed by Sanderson Miller, an English pioneer of Gothic revival architecture. The castle has a round tower at each corner, but by design only one is complete and decorated inside with a coat of arms. The grounds, which also feature a temple portico inspired by an ancient Greek temple, some urns, and obelisks, are now privately owned and not open to the public.

8. TATA CASTLE RUINS // TATA, HUNGARY

French architect Charles de Moreau (1758-1841) was a scholar of classical Roman architecture known for his ability to counterfeit impressive ruins. Nicholas I, Prince Esterhazy of Hungary, hired him to work on Tata Castle and to create the ruins of a Romanesque church for the palace’s English Garden. Even though the ruin Moreau created was fake, he built it with the stones of a real ruin, the remnants of the early-12th-century Benedictine and later Dominican abbey of Vértesszőlős. A third-century ancient Roman tombstone and relief were placed nearby.

9. BELVEDERE CASTLE // MANHATTAN, NEW YORK

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park in the mid-1800s, and their plan for creating romantic vistas included the construction of a folly known as Belvedere Castle. The Gothic-Romanesque style hybrid, overlooking Central Park’s Great Lawn, was completed in 1869. Although the folly was designed as a hollow shell and meant to be a ruin, it eventually served a practical purpose, housing a weather bureau and exhibit space. The castle also provides a beautiful backdrop for Shakespeare in the Park productions, evoking the royal homes that play prominent roles in the Bard’s works.

10. FOLLY WALL IN BARKING TOWN SQUARE // LONDON

In a borough known for its real historic buildings, the ancient wall found in London’s Barking Town Square might look centuries old. It’s not, and ironically, the wall is part of the square’s renovation efforts. The wall was built by bricklaying students at Barking College using old bricks and crumbling stone items found at salvage yards. Known as the "Secret Garden," named after the children’s book about a walled garden, the wall was designed to screen a nearby supermarket and was unveiled in 2007.

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IA Collaborative
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Lovely Vintage Manuals Show How to Design for the Human Body
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IA Collaborative

If you're designing something for people to hold and use, you probably want to make sure that it will fit a normal human. You don't want to make a cell phone that people can't hold in their hands (mostly) or a vacuum that will have you throwing out your back every time you clean the house. Ergonomics isn't just for your office desk setup; it's for every product you physically touch.

In the mid-1970s, the office of legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss created a series of manuals for designers working on products that involved the human body. And now, the rare Humanscale manuals from Henry Dreyfuss Associates are about to come back into print with the help of a Kickstarter campaign from a contemporary design firm. Using the work of original Henry Dreyfuss Associates designers Niels Diffrient and Alvin R. Tilley, the guides are getting another life with the help of the Chicago-based design consultancy IA Collaborative.

A Humanscale page illustrates human strength statistics.

The three Humanscale Manuals, published between 1974 and 1981 but long out-of-print, covered 18 different types of human-centric design categories, like typical body measurements, how people stand in public spaces, how hand and foot controls should work, and how to design for wheelchair users within legal requirements. In the mid-20th century, the ergonomics expertise of Dreyfuss and his partners was used in the development of landmark products like the modern telephones made by Bell Labs, the Polaroid camera, Honeywell's round thermostat, and the Hoover vacuum.

IA Collaborative is looking to reissue all three Humanscale manuals which you can currently only find in their printed form as historic documents in places like the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York. IA Collaborative's Luke Westra and Nathan Ritter worked with some of the original designers to make the guides widely available again. Their goal was to reprint them at a reasonable price for designers. They're not exactly cheap, but the guides are more than just pretty decor for the office. The 60,000-data-point guides, IA Collaborative points out, "include metrics for every facet of human existence."

The manuals come in the form of booklets with wheels inside the page that you spin to reveal standards for different categories of people (strong, tall, short, able-bodied, men, women, children, etc.). There are three booklets, each with three double-sided pages, one for each category. For instance, Humanscale 1/2/3 covers body measurements, link measurements, seating guide, seat/table guide, wheelchair users, and the handicapped and elderly.

A product image of the pages from Humanscale Manual 1/2/3 stacked in a row.

"All products––from office chairs to medical devices—require designs that 'fit' the end user," according to Luke Westra, IA Collective's engineering director. "Finding the human factors data one needs to achieve these ‘fits' can be extremely challenging as it is often scattered across countless sources," he explains in a press release, "unless you've been lucky enough to get your hands on the Humanscale manuals."

Even setting aside the importance of the information they convey, the manuals are beautiful. Before infographics were all over the web, Henry Dreyfuss Associates were creating a huge compendium of visual data by hand. Whether you ever plan to design a desk chair or not, the manuals are worthy collectors' items.

The Kickstarter campaign runs from July 25 to August 24. The three booklets can be purchased individually ($79) or as a full set ($199).

All images courtesy IA Collaborative

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