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Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images
Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

What Do They Use to Dye the Chicago River Green?

Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images
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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What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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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High School's Anonymous Pantry Offers Discreet Access to Necessities
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Being a teenager is tough enough without having to worry where your next meal is coming from. At Washington High School in Washington, North Carolina, students are able to access an in-house pantry stocked with basic resources, away from the prying eyes of their peers.

In 2015, the high school’s former principal Misty Walker opened a hygiene closet in partnership with Bright Futures, an organization dedicated to helping schools in the community. She told the Huffington Post that she got the idea after being approached by students looking for basic items like toothbrushes and toothpaste. Today, the pantry stocks food, clothing, and school supplies provided by local donors.

If students ever wish to use the closet, all they need to do is confide in a teacher, counselor, or administrator. They will then be taken by a staff member to one of the school’s pantries where they can shop in a private setting free from stigma. Because the program is anonymous, there are no flyers hung up advertising the pantry. Instead, the administration relies on word of mouth to spread the news.

Washington High School's assistant vice principal Melissa Harris took over the project following Walker's departure, and she tells Mental Floss that today it's stronger than ever. "The food pantry is being replenished by partners and student organizations," she says. "Our carpentry kids are also participating in the overhaul and design of the new space. The toiletry closet and clothes closet are in constant use and our partners are assisting in keeping that replenished and it has been a blessing to our students."

Some high schools across the country have followed Washington's lead in recent years. William Penn High School in New Castle, Delaware, and Northridge High School in Layton, Utah, are just a few of the institutions with similar programs.

But Washington High remains ahead of the curve. In preparation for the holidays, the school is hosting food drives for its December backpack program: The plan is to send students home with backpacks filled with two weeks' worth of supplies to get them through the long break. 

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