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How Did Slipping on a Banana Peel Become a Comedy Staple?

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It is now a deadly weapon in Mario Kart and a slapstick comedy staple, but how did the banana peel gets its reputation as such a threatening object?

A Danger to Society

Before the discovery of its comedic potential, the banana skin was considered a real public hazard. In the mid-19th century, a man named Carl B. Frank began importing Panamanian bananas to New York City. The fruit quickly became a popular street food throughout America, but the surge in urban migration and lack of sanitation regulation posed a major problem in cities. People often tossed their garbage into the streets, leading to a general foul stench and public waste buildup. A fresh banana peel might seem non-threatening, but a rotting banana peel was a slime-covered booby trap.

Whether or not people frequently slipped on the rotten skins, the banana peel came to symbolize poor manners. Around 1880, Harper’s Weekly admonished anyone who tossed their banana peels on a public walkway, as this would likely result in broken limbs. In the book Bananas: An American History, author Virginia Scott Jenkins describes how Sunday Schools warned children that an improperly discarded peel would not only definitively lead to a broken limb, but that the person with the broken limb would inevitably end up in the poorhouse due to this injury. In 1909, the St. Louis city council completely outlawed “throwing or casting” a banana rind on public thoroughfares.

During the 19th century, cities relied heavily on wild pigs that roamed the streets to dispose of rotting organic matter. This method was not wholly effective. According to the book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel, the banana peel epidemic in New York City was ultimately solved around the turn of the century by a public agency headed by a former Civil War colonel. Col. George Waring organized a fleet of uniformed workers, known as the “White Wings,” who swept the streets in shifts and disposed of the waste in public composting facilities. Koeppel cites this as the “first large-scale recycling effort in the United States.”

The Pratfall

Today it’s quite rare to see a discarded banana peel on the sidewalk, but it is still ingrained in most Americans the perils of crossing paths with one. Since the beginning of the 20th century, slipping on a banana peel has been a fixture in physical comedy. The slipping-and-falling gag is widely accepted to have originated on the Vaudeville stage. The AV Club points to Vaudeville comedian “Sliding” Billy Watson – not to be confused with competing Vaudevillian Billy “Beef Trust” Watson – as the self-proclaimed inventor of the banana-peel pratfall. Supposedly, Watson witnessed a man struggling to maintain his balance after slipping on a peel. This inspired the “sliding act” which brought him great fame in the 1900’s.

Vaudeville comedian Cal Stewart often told many banana peel jokes as his copyrighted stage persona “Uncle Josh.” A 1903 recording of the bit “Uncle Josh in a Department Store,” features many references to banana peel-laden sidewalks.

The gag first appeared on the silver screen in the Harold Lloyd silent film The Flirt. While sitting in a restaurant, Lloyd’s character diligently peels a banana then tosses the skin on the floor. A snooty waiter walks by with a full tray, slips and falls. Chaos ensues. Buster Keaton heightened the gag in his film The High Sign (1921). Walking down the street, Keaton encounters a banana peel on the sidewalk. He proceeds to walk over it, but contrary to the audience expectation, he does so totally unharmed. Keaton puts his hands to his mouth and mocks the peel, only to slip on a second peel he didn’t see.

Though the traditional gag became very commonplace in silent cinema, comedians continued to find ways to improve the wheel, if not reinvent it. In their 1927 picture The Battle of the Century, Laurel and Hardy use the banana peel trick as an impetus for a full-scale pie fight.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDgnqfepRfI

The silent film era may have cemented the comedic potential of an improperly discarded banana peel, but the gag has continued to hold a place in popular culture to this day. Even Woody Allen fell victim to the slippery effects of an oversized peel in his early film Sleeper.

Scientific Proof?

In the 1800’s, a banana peel achieved its gooey state only after several days or weeks of rotting. However, the gag proposes a freshly peeled banana skin is equally threatening.

Back in 2009, Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters decided to test the slipping-on-a-banana-peel theory. In their experiments, a singular banana peel did not yield any slippage. However, when they filled a concrete surface with many different banana skins, Mythbuster Adam slipped a total of 6 times in one minute while trying to traverse the peel-covered surface. While this particular experiment confirmed banana peels are indeed slippery, it did not guarantee that stepping on a banana peel would definitely lead to a fall. Thus the myth was considered disproved.

How Stuff Works proposed that friction determines the actual likelihood of one slipping on a banana. The less friction between a foot and the peel in question, the more likely one is to slip. The author points out that the soles of today’s shoes are designed with risks like these in mind. So the likelihood of you actually slipping on a banana is pretty slim.

However, TV Tropes noted that in 2001 Great Britain reported over 300 banana-related mishaps – the majority due to peel-slipping. In 2011, a woman in California sued a 99 Cent Only store in which she suffered a herniated disk from allegedly slipping on a banana peel left in the middle of an aisle.

So remember, if you ever encounter a freshly shed peel in your path, it’s probably harmless. Then again, if you want to avoid becoming a punch line, it’s probably best to sidestep it.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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