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What Do They Use to Dye the Chicago River Green?

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Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

It wouldn’t be a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the Windy City without 400,000 spectators crowding the banks of the Chicago River to “ooh” and “aah” at its (temporarily) emerald green tinge. But what do they use to dye the waterway?

First, a bit of history: The dyeing tradition became an annual thing more than half a century ago, in 1962, but its real origins go back even further. In the early days of his administration as Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley was a man on a mission to develop the city’s riverfront area. There was just one problem: The river itself was a sewage-filled eyesore. In order to get to the bottom of the city’s pollution problem and pinpoint the exact places where waste was being discarded into the waterway (and by whom), Daley authorized the pouring of a special green dye into the river that would allow them to see exactly where dumping was occurring.

Fast-forward to late 1961 when Stephen Bailey—part of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local, the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade chairman, and a childhood friend of Daley’s—witnessed a colleague’s green-soaked coveralls following a day of pouring Daley’s dye into the Chicago River. That gave Bailey an idea: If they could streak the Chicago River green, why not turn it all green?

Three months later, revelers got their first look at an Ecto Cooler-colored river when the city poured 100 pounds of the chemical into the water. They got a really good look, too, as the river remained green for an entire week.

Over the next several years, the same practice was repeated, and again it was carried out by the Plumbers Local. The only difference was that the amount of dye used was cut in half over the next two years until they finally arrived at the magic number: 25 pounds of dye = one day of green water.

Unfortunately, the dye that was intended to help spot pollution was an oil-based fluorescein that many environmentalists warned was actually damaging the river even more. After fierce lobbying, eco-minded heads prevailed and in 1966 the parade organizers began using a powdered, vegetable-based dye.

While the exact formula for the orange powder (yes, it's orange until it's mixed with water) is kept top-secret—in 2003 one of the parade organizers told a reporter that revealing the formula would be akin to “telling where the leprechaun hides its gold”—there are plenty of details that the committee lets even non-leprechauns in on:

The dyeing process begins at 9:15 a.m. on the morning of the parade (which is always held on a Saturday) when six members of the local Plumbers Union hop aboard two boats, four of them on the larger vessel, the remaining two on a smaller boat.

The larger boat heads out onto the water first, with three members of the crew using flour sifters to spread the dye into the river. The smaller boat follows closely behind in order to help disperse the substance.

Approximately 45 minutes later, voila, the Chicago River is green! But don’t expect it to stay that way. These days, the color only sticks around for about five hours. Which is roughly the same amount of time it takes to get a perfectly poured pint of Guinness if you venture out to an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day.

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

This post originally appeared in 2015.

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Why the Best Time to Book Your Thanksgiving Travel Is Right Now
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You're never going to get a true steal on holiday plane tickets, but if you want to avoid spending your whole salary flying to visit your relatives over Thanksgiving, the time is nigh to start picking seats. That's according to the experts at Condé Nast Traveler, who cite data from Expedia and Skyscanner.

The latter found that it was cheapest to secure Thanksgiving tickets 11 weeks before the holiday. That means that you should have bought your ticket around September 4, but it's not too late; you can still save if you book now. Expedia's data shows that the cheapest time to buy is 61 to 90 days before you leave, so you still have until September 23 to snag a seat on a major airline without paying an obscene premium. (Relatively speaking, of course.)

When major travel holidays aren't involved, data shows that the best time to book a plane ticket is on a Sunday, at least 21 days ahead of your travel. But given that millions of other Americans also want to fly on the exact same days during Thanksgiving and Christmas, the calculus of booking is a bit more high stakes. If you sleep on tickets this month, you could be missing out on hundreds of dollars in savings. In the recent study cited by Condé Nast Traveler, Expedia found that people booking during the 61- to 90-day window saved up to 10 percent off the average ticket price, while last-minute bookers who bought tickets six days or less from their travel day paid up to 20 percent more.

Once you secure those Turkey Day tickets, you've got a new project: Your Christmas flights. By Hopper's estimates, those flights rise in price by $1.50 every day between the end of October and December 15 (after which they get even more expensive). However, playing the waiting game can be beneficial, too. Expedia found that the cheapest time to book Christmas flights was just 14 to 20 days out.

Before you buy, we also recommend checking CheapAir.com, which tracks 11,000 different airfares for flights around the holidays to analyze price trends. Because as miserable as holiday travel can be, you don't want to pay any more than you have to.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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Why Can’t You Wear White After Labor Day?
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Wearing white in the summer makes sense. Desert peoples have known for thousands of years that white clothing seems to keep you a little bit cooler than other colors. But wearing white only during the summer? While no one is completely sure exactly when or why this fashion rule came into effect, our best guess is that it had to do with snobbery in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The wives of the super-rich ruled high society with an iron fist after the Civil War. As more and more people became millionaires, though, it was difficult to tell the difference between respectable old money families and those who only had vulgar new money. By the 1880s, in order to tell who was acceptable and who wasn’t, the women who were already “in” felt it necessary to create dozens of fashion rules that everyone in the know had to follow. That way, if a woman showed up at the opera in a dress that cost more than most Americans made in a year, but it had the wrong sleeve length, other women would know not to give her the time of day.

Not wearing white outside the summer months was another one of these silly rules. White was for weddings and resort wear, not dinner parties in the fall. Of course it could get extremely hot in September, and wearing white might make the most sense, but if you wanted to be appropriately attired you just did not do it. Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, and society eventually adopted it as the natural endpoint for summer fashion.

Not everyone followed this rule. Even some socialites continued to buck the trend, most famously Coco Chanel, who wore white year-round. But even though the rule was originally enforced by only a few hundred women, over the decades it trickled down to everyone else. By the 1950s, women’s magazines made it clear to middle class America: White clothing came out on Memorial Day and went away on Labor Day.

These days the fashion world is much more relaxed about what colors to wear and when, but every year you will still hear people say that white after Labor Day is unacceptable, all thanks to some snobby millionaires who decided that was a fashion no-no more than 100 years ago.

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