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Why Were the Oscars Created?

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In the late 1920s, MGM bigwig Louis B. Mayer (above) got antsy when studio construction unions began forming in Hollywood. These guilds came with expensive labor agreements, which were proving cost-prohibitive for the film studio. He was also annoyed because he wanted some MGM set designers to build his Santa Monica beach house, but because of the recently signed union contracts, his “outside project” would be very expensive. Mayer got around that by hiring just a few of the studio's skilled artisans and outsourcing the cheap labor. But the situation was an eyeopener for Mayer, who figured soon Hollywood's directors, actors, and writers would unionize, too.

As a result, Mayer and a couple of buddies created the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). In effect, this organization would hopefully stave off any more unionization efforts in Hollywood. Shortly after this meeting, Mayer convened with 36 actors, directors, writers, technicians, and producers in a fancy hotel and told them that if they signed on as “Academy members,” working conditions would improve and they’d be a part of an elite organization. Not wanting to miss out on such an opportunity, the Hollywood folks — including new president Douglas Fairbanks and the only female, Mary Pickford — signed on.

The doling out of Awards, which most of the world will celebrate on TV tonight, were actually an afterthought of this newly organized union. While many industry folk committed to the AMPAS, they were seeing few events planned to legitimize them or showcase Hollywood’s talent. Enter the first awards ceremony in 1929, honoring films released from August 1, 1927 through July 31, 1928. In the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 250 well-dressed people dined on fish and chicken while Douglas Fairbanks made a short speech and divvied out golden statues to his colleagues. The event was apparently a rather quiet one, virtually free of the media.

We know that a nervous studio head created the AMPAS to curb union formations in Hollywood and to exert more control over his employees. But what about the awards ceremony? Was it established for an underhanded purpose as well? Yeah, it apparently was. 

In Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, Scott Eyman quotes a rather smug-sounding Mayer on the Oscars:

I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them. […] If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.

Keep that gem in mind as you watch the Oscars tonight.

Additional Sources:History of the Academy Awards; Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel; "The House That Mr. Mayer Built: Inside the Union-Busting Birth of the Academy Awards."

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Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

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
Why Did We Start Wearing Pants?
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iStock

It’s a question that has plagued Donald Duck for decades: Who decided pants were necessary? Did the motivation stem purely from modesty, or was there another reason we started climbing into trousers?

Over at Discover, author Sarah Scoles has offered a plausible explanation by describing a 2014 archaeological find in China’s Tarim Basin. Researchers with the German Archaeological Institute excavated what is believed to be the oldest example of pants ever unearthed, made from wool and dating back 3000 years.

The pants themselves held no clue as to why they were made, but their location did. The research team found them buried at the Yanghai cemetery along with a number of other artifacts, including horse-riding gear that was in the same grave: a wooden bit, a bow, and an axe. The pants-wearer was surely someone tasked with galloping around and slaying animals for food—likely necessitating apparel that would allow him to mount a horse without being encumbered by clothing.

A screen shot of Donald Duck near a door
Disney

That idea eventually bled into Greek and Roman culture, where those on horseback sought out a comfortable and practical way of avoiding chafing. (The grave’s proto-pants also appeared to be an early example of being fashion-conscious. While mostly practical, each leg had cross-stitching that appeared to be purely decorative.)

Whether the Yanghai discovery is considered the earliest example of pants depends on how one defines pants. Ötzi, the European iceman first discovered in 1991, lived roughly 5300 years ago and died wearing goatskin leggings. We know a cartoon duck who has a lot of catching up to do.

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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