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This Light Bulb Has Been Burning Since 1901

There’s a light bulb in Livermore, California that won’t go out. It hangs on a cord from the ceiling of the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department’s Fire Station #6, and it has been burning since 1901. On June 27, 2015, there was a party held in the bulb’s honor to celebrate its one millionth hour of operation. There were refreshments and music and barbecue. Town officials toasted the bulb's achievement. The light bulb, for its part, burned over everyone’s heads, like it always does.

About an hour east of San Francisco, Livermore sits in a valley surrounded by rolling hills made gold by the drought. The fire station is on East Avenue, and bulb tourists like myself must walk around back and ring the doorbell to get let in. Inside, fire engines and equipment dominate the space. The small bulb hangs about twenty feet overhead, glowing near a row of fluorescent shop lights which, unlike the bulb, were turned off. If it weren't for the camera pointed directly at it (to broadcast a live web stream), the bulb would be easy to miss.

To be an on-duty firefighter at Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Station #6 means you have to both fight fires and give historical light bulb tours at a moment's notice. The two firemen who hosted me said I was the second visitor of the day. Some days they have huge groups who come in—groups that have been known to bunch beneath the bulb and gawk crane-necked at it until the firemen get an emergency call. They then have to politely shoo the tourists outside while they gear up to leave the station, sirens blaring. These visitors will sometimes still be standing outside when the firefighters return, waiting to get let back in to look at the bulb some more.

BULB FACTS

Manufacturer: Shelby Electric Company in Shelby, Ohio (est. 1896, out of business 1912).

Manufacture date: c. 1898.

Designer: French electrical engineer Adolphe A. Chaillet (b. Nov 1867, d. ~1914).

Filament: Carbon, made by a “secret process” that is still unknown today. The filament forms a loop inside the bulb that, from below, looks like the word “no” written in cursive.

Wattage: The bulb is thought to be a 60-watt model (actual figure unknown), but it currently burns at about four watts.

Is it still on?: Yes.

Much of this info (and the information that follows) is from A Million Hours of Service, a book about the bulb written by Thomas Bramell, Livermore's retired Deputy Fire Chief and foremost historian of the bulb. It is for sale at the fire station, along with bulb T-shirts and other bulb memorabilia. (Proceeds go to the Livermore-Pleasanton Firefighters Foundation, a non-profit that supports injured and fallen firefighters, the burn foundation, and other charities.)

Brief History of the Bulb as *THE BULB*

The bulb's current residence.

The bulb had been burning without much fanfare for 71 years before Mike Dunstan, a reporter for the Livermore Herald and News, starting asking around about it in 1972. Through interviews, Dunstan was able to confirm the bulb’s longevity.

The bulb was likely given to the fire department in 1901 as a gift from local businessman Dennis F. Bernal. One of Bernal’s children recalled to Dunstan that her father had given away a stash of business and personal items in 1901 and that this stash probably included the bulb. Older residents remembered passing the fire station and seeing the bulb during walks to and from school in the early 1900s. John Jensen, a former volunteer firefighter who served in Livermore in 1905, said he recalled the light being on at all times as far back as he can remember. Because it worked as a sort of emergency light to help firefighters see at any time of the day, the bulb was never turned off.

The light has been burning so continuously, the few instances when it has been turned off can be printed on a small bookmark:

1906: The bulb was moved from a fire house on Second Street in Livermore to a new fire station on First Street.

1937: The bulb was turned off for about a week when the station underwent renovations that were part of a WPA project.

1976: The bulb was moved to the newly built Fire Station #6. It was off for about 22 minutes during that move, plus a few seconds after it was installed and wouldn’t work. (City electrician Frank Moul slightly rotated the bulb’s socket switch, rectifying the problem.)

May 20, 2013: The bulb went out in the early morning hours when its uninterrupted power supply malfunctioned. A man in Australia watching on the bulb web cam noticed the outage and frantically tried to get in touch with the fire station from the other side of the Pacific Ocean. The bulb wound up being off for about nine hours.

To fix it, firefighters bypassed the uninterrupted power supply with an extension cord. Worryingly, it burned about four times as bright as normal when it was turned back on, raising fears that it was about to surge out. Over the next few days, however, it returned to its normal brightness level, which is to say about as bright as an overzealous nightlight.

Three Theories On Why the Bulb Hasn’t Burnt Out

1: Consistency: Matt, one of the firefighters who showed me the bulb, tossed out this theory (which he identified as “a theory,” meaning that it is in no way definitive). As described above, the bulb has been turned off and on so infrequently that the filament has burned at a steady rate without having to cool down and heat back up repeatedly. This results in a sort of “thermal momentum.” (“Thermal momentum” is my phrase, and I thought it sounded super smart when I said it during Matt’s explanation and am including here for posterity, hoping it gets reprinted in further reports about the bulb, granting me a slice of the bulb's immortality).

2. It’s just one of those things: Joel, the other firefighter present during my visit, added to the previous theory by calling the whole thing a “perfect accident” (which I concede is a much better phrase than my “thermal momentum” mumbo jumbo—mumbo jumbo, it turns out, that is already a term in the physics community and not a term coined by yours truly; thus my immortality burns out). “The Shelby bulbs are hand-blown,” he explained, and the uniqueness of its shape, size, filament, and other factors that can’t be achieved during mass production all contribute to this “perfect accident.”

3. Planned Obsolescence: On December 23, 1924, executives from the world’s major light bulb manufacturers met in Geneva to hatch a plan. GE, Philips, Tokyo Electric, Germany's Osram, France’s Compagnie des Lampes, and others joined together to form what is known as the Phoebus Cartel. The cartel divided the world into market zones they would individually control and instituted sales quotas to keep each company equally dominant. They also decided to limit their lightbulbs’ average operating lives to 1,000 hours, about half the number of hours the companies’ existing bulbs were capable to burn.

“The cartel took its business of shortening the lifetime of bulbs every bit as seriously as earlier researchers had approached their job of lengthening it,” writes Markus Krajewski in the trade magazine for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. “Each factory bound by the cartel agreement—and there were hundreds, including GE’s numerous licensees throughout the world—had to regularly send samples of its bulbs to a central testing laboratory in Switzerland. There, the bulbs were thoroughly vetted against cartel standards.”

The cartel unraveled by the 1930s, partly due to government intervention and fair trade legislation, and also because smaller competitors were able to disrupt the manufacturing giants by selling cheaper bulbs.

While the cartel’s shelf life was as short as the bulbs they produced, its legacy has lasted much longer. Accusations of planned obsolescence are routinely pointed at companies nowadays, and every time someone’s smartphone breaks after its warranty runs out, the ensuing complaints (justified or not) have their roots in the Phoebus Cartel's scheme.

If this all sounds like the plot of a paranoid novel, it’s because it is. Thomas Pynchon wrote about the Phoebus Cartel in Gravity’s Rainbow. They appear in a section about “Byron the Bulb,” a plucky talking light bulb who never burns out and becomes a target of the the cartel. While Pynchon was obviously writing fiction here—lights bulbs don’t talk, not even famous ones hanging in California fire stations—the Phoebus Cartel was very much real.

Seeing as Gravity’s Rainbow was published in 1973, it’s possible that Pynchon, who lived in California, had read Dustan’s coverage of the fire house bulb in the Livermore Herald and News and used it as inspiration for Byron the Bulb (he'd have to have quickly put it in the book he had been working on for years, though).

Either way, the centennial bulb has become a smoking gun of sorts for people who believe that companies still conspire to shorten products’ operating lives for profit. It was featured in the 2010 documentary The Lightbulb Conspiracy, and a British film crew traveled all the way to Livermore to film the bulb, glowing away in humble glory.

No matter how well-made those pre-Phoebus bulbs are, 114 years is still a ghastly overachievement for Livermore's little light.

When I asked the on-duty firefighters about the theory of planned obsolescence, they shrugged and were democratically noncommittal as to whether or not their station's nightlight pointed to a global conspiracy.

Landesarchiv Berlin

What Happens When/If It Burns Out?

After that close call in 2013 when it was off for nine hours, the keepers of the bulb saw its life flash before their eyes. Should the centennial bulb burn out for good, they don't want to be without a strategy for saying goodbye to it with dignity. While nothing is official yet, they want to have a full funeral procession through town, finishing at the historical society where the bulb will be displayed in a resting place of honor.

If you show up and quietly do your job without fuss for long enough, there's a chance you'll be celebrated like a head of state when you die.

Murmurs of a replacement bulb also abound. A supposedly unused Shelby model just like the current centennial bulb has been acquired by a party who may be willing to part with it when the time comes. Keep in mind, these plans all hinge on the bulb actually burning out, something that hasn't happened for 114 years.

Don't be surprised if it buries us all. Long live the bulb.

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9 False Rumors With Real-Life Consequences
King Louis XV of France
King Louis XV of France
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Don’t believe everything you read—or everything you hear. Unverified but plausible-sounding rumors have been the basis for violent death and destruction throughout history, whether or not the stories had anything to do with the truth.

In their book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall describe rumors as “stories of perceived importance that lack substantiating evidence.” They also note that the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani describes rumors as “improvised news,” which tends to spread when the demand for information exceeds supply. Such an information deficit most often occurs during wars and other crises, which might explain why some rumors have had such dramatic results. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting rumors with real-life results collected in Bartholomew and Hassall’s book.

1. KING LOUIS XV WAS KIDNAPPING CHILDREN.

In 1750, children began disappearing from the streets of Paris. No one seemed to know why, and worried parents began rioting in the streets. In the midst of the panic, a rumor broke out that King Louis XV had become a leper and was kidnapping children so that he could bathe in their blood (at the time, bathing in the blood of children was thought by some to be an effective leprosy cure).

The rumor did have a tiny kernel of truth: Authorities were taking children away, but not to the king’s palace. A recently enacted series of ordinances designed to clear the streets of “undesirables” had led some policemen—who were paid per arrest—to overstep their authority and take any children they found on the streets to houses of detention. Fortunately, most were eventually reunited with their parents, and rumors of the king’s gruesome bathing rituals were put to rest.

2. LONDON WAS GOING TO BE DESTROYED BY AN EARTHQUAKE.

Two small earthquakes struck London at the beginning of 1761, leading to rumors that the city was due for “the big one” on April 5, 1761. Supposedly, a psychic had predicted the catastrophe. Much of the populace grew so panicked that they fled town for the day, with those who couldn’t afford fancier lodgings camping out in the fields. One soldier was so convinced of the impending doom that he ran through the streets shouting news of London’s imminent destruction; sadly, he ended up in an insane asylum a few months later.

3. JEWS WERE POISONING WELLS.

A deep well
iStock

Reports that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children were not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but things took a particularly terrible turn during the spread of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, thousands of Jews were killed in response to rumors that Satan was protecting them from the plague in exchange for poisoning the wells of Christians. In 1321 in Guienne, France alone, an estimated 5000 Jews were burned alive for supposedly poisoning wells. Other communities expelled the Jews, or burned entire settlements to the ground. Brandenburg, Germany, even passed a law denouncing Jews for poisoning wells—which of course they weren't.

4. BRIGANDS WERE TERRORIZING THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE.

In July 1789, amid the widespread fear and instability on the eve of the French revolution, rumors spread that the anti-revolutionary nobility had planted brigands (robbers) to terrorize the peasants and steal their stores of food. Lights from furnaces, bonfires, and even the reflection of the setting sun were sometimes taken to be signs of brigands, with panic as the predictable result. Provincial towns and villages formed militias in response to the rumors, even though, as historian Georges Lefebvre put it, “the populace scared themselves.” In one typical incident, near Troyes on July 24, 1789, a group of brigands were supposedly spotted heading into some woods; an alarm was sounded and 3000 men gave chase. The “brigands” turned out to be a herd of cattle.

5. GERMAN-AMERICANS WERE PLOTTING SNEAK ATTACKS ON CANADA.

Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching in a Canada Day parade
iStock

Canada entered World War I in 1914, three years before the United States did. During the gap period, rumors circulated that German-Americans sympathetic to their country of origin were planning surprise attacks on Canada. One of the worst offenders of such rumor-mongering, according to authors Bartholomew and Hassall, was British consul-general Sir Courtenay Bennett, then stationed in New York. In the early months of 1915, Bennett made “several sensational claims about a plan in which as many as 80,000 well-armed, highly trained Germans who had been drilling in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, were planning to invade Canada from northwestern New York state.” Bizarre as it may sound, there was so much anxiety and suspicion during the period that Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested a report on the story, which the Canadian police commissioner determined to be without any foundation whatsoever.

6. THE INDONESIAN GOVERNMENT WAS HUNTING HEADS FOR CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS.

In certain parts of Indonesia, locals reportedly believe—or once did—that large-scale construction projects require human heads to keep the structures from crumbling. In 1937, one island was home to a spate of rumors saying that a tjoelik (government-sanctioned headhunter) was looking for a head to place near a local jetty construction project. Locals reported strange noises and sights, houses pelted with stones, and attacks from tjoelik wielding nooses or cowboy lassos. Similar rumors surfaced in 1979 in Indonesian Borneo, when government agents were supposedly seeking a head for a new bridge project, and in 1981 in Southern Borneo, when the government headhunters supposedly needed heads to stabilize malfunctioning equipment in nearby oil fields. Terrified townspeople began curtailing their activities so as not to be in public any longer than necessary, although the rumors eventually died down.

7. POWERFUL APHRODISIAC GUM WENT ON SALE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

An assortment of sticks of pink bubble gum
iStock

In the mid-1990s, the Middle East was home to some alarming rumors about aphrodisiacal gum. In 1996 in Mansoura, Egypt, stories began spreading that students at the town’s university had purchased gum deliberately spiked with an aphrodisiac and were having orgies as a result. One local member of parliament said the gum had been distributed by the Israeli government as part of a plot to corrupt Egyptian youth. Mosque loudspeakers began warning people to avoid the gum, which was supposedly sold under the names “Aroma” or “Splay.” Authorities closed down some shops and made arrests, but never did find any tainted gum. Similar rumors cropped up the following year in the Gaza Strip, this time featuring a strawberry gum that turned women into prostitutes—supposedly, the better to convince them to become Shin Bet informants for the Israeli military.

8. SORCERERS WERE PLAGUING INDONESIA.

In the fall of 1998, a sorcerer scare in East Java, Indonesia, resulted in the deaths of several villagers. The country was in crisis, and while protests raged in major cities, some in the rural area of Banyuwangi began agitating for restitution for past wrongs allegedly committed by sorcerers. The head of the local district ordered authorities to move the suspected sorcerers to a safe location, a process that included a check-in at the local police station. Unfortunately, villagers took the suspects’ visits to police stations as proof of their sorcery and began killing them. Anthropologists who studied the incident said the stories of supposed sorcery—making neighbors fall sick, etc.—were based entirely on rumor and gossip.

9. OBAMA WAS INJURED BY A WHITE HOUSE EXPLOSION.

These days, rumors have advanced technology to help them travel. On April 23, 2013, a fake tweet from a hacked Associated Press account claimed that explosions at the White House had injured Barack Obama. That lone tweet caused instability on world financial markets, and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index lost $130 billion in a short period. Fortunately, it quickly recovered. (Eagle-eyed journalists were suspicious of the tweet from the beginning, since it didn’t follow AP style of referring to the president with his title and capitalizing the word breaking.)

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

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20 Old Hat Styles Due for a Comeback
John Firth, BIPs/Getty Images
John Firth, BIPs/Getty Images

One thing that illustrated and photographic archives have taught us is that people have always known how to rock a stylish piece of headwear. From squat caps to towering toppers, history has produced a hat for every occasion. Here are 20 old styles that, with a healthy dose of fashion and confidence, could still look just as fabulous today.

1. THE CLOCHE

A woman wearing a cloche hat decorated with flowers.
Sasha, Getty Images

The sleek, head-hugging cloche was the perfect companion to the bobbed hairstyle worn by flappers in the 1920s. The hats were typically left plain to emphasize their bell-shaped silhouette, though they also offered a blank canvas for embellishment. The cloche was most popular during the Jazz Age but it’s occasionally incorporated into retro fashion styles today.

2. THE OTTOMAN HEADDRESS

A drawing of a man wearing an Ottoman headdress.

In Ottoman ceremonial costumes, hats played a starring role. The headgear often featured bright colors, feathery ornamentations, and elaborate designs that signified status. The wearer’s class, religion, gender, and clan could all be gleaned from the way the fabric in their headdress was layered.

3. THE BOWLER HAT

Oscar Wilde wearing a bowler hat in 1885.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The top hat was popular in the 19th century but it wasn't always the most practical choice for outdoor activities. When looking for a way to protect the heads of horseback riders from branches, brothers Thomas and William Bowler came up with their namesake cap. The bowler hat was sturdy, compact, and appropriate for most any occasion. Though the bowler hat largely fizzled out by the 1980s, the item's original London manufacturers Lock & Co. still sell thousands each year.

4. THE PILLBOX HAT

Woman wearing a pillbox hat in the 1960s.
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

Unlike some hats from history, this one was prized for its simplicity. It could be easily identified by its brimless, round shape evoking that of a pillbox. It began gaining steam in the 1930s before reaching peak popularity with First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s.

5. THE FASCINATOR

Victoria Beckham wearing a fascinator in 2007.
Mark Mainz, Getty Images

Depending on the look you’re going for, a fascinator can be worn as a subtle accent item or a show-stealing statement piece. The hat is defined as an ornamental headpiece that’s secured to the crown using a headband or comb. Once they fit that criteria, fascinators can take the form of flowers, feathers, fabric, or whatever else the wearer can engineer to stay on their head. And though they're still popular in the U.K., Americans don't tend to utilize fascinators outside of Derby Day attire.

6. THE TRI-CORNER HAT

A tri-cornered hat from Spain, circa 1780.
Gabriel Bouys, AFP/Getty Images

In 17th century Europe and America, tri-cornered hats, or tricornes, gave men the opportunity to show off their lustrous wigs poking out from beneath the upturned brim. It's no surprise then that the hat style died out with the powdered wig fad, but that doesn't mean it isn't fit for a comeback. Even if wearers don't have wigs to flaunt, they could take a page from our forefathers' book and upgrade the hat itself with feathers, brocades, and fabrics—or maybe just sports insignias.

7. THE DEERSTALKER HAT

British actor Peter Cushing wearing a deerstalker hat circa 1960.
Keystone/Getty Images

If you’ve seen this hat anywhere, it was most likely on the head of someone portraying Sherlock Holmes. The headpiece has been tied to the character since the books were published in the 19th century (it was the illustrations—not the story—that did it, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never mentions the cap in the text). It’s peculiar that an urban detective would be wearing a deerstalker hat in the first place, considering they were designed for hunting game and not tracking clues, but the smartly styled hat's comeback should be ... elementary.

8. THE HENNIN

Illustration of a French woman wearing a hennin in the 15th century.
plaisanter, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

These striking hats were a clear sign of royalty in the medieval era. Reinforced with wire or padding and draped in fine fabric, the cone-shaped hennin is still synonymous with the stereotypical princess today. English hennins were fairly modest in height, but the French version reached up to to three feet and the hat's Mongolian predecessor towered five to seven feet high.

9. THE NEWSBOY CAP

Newsboys in St. Louis in 1910.
Lewis Hine, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This hat goes by many names (the big apple, the eight panel, the Gatsby), but its strongest association is with newsboys at the turn of the 20th century. The floppy, brimmed cap wasn't just popular with the younger working class. It was worn by men across the social ladder and was a common sight on the golf course.

10. THE PEACH BASKET HAT

Actress Marion Davies in a peach basket hat.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The origin of this hat name isn't too hard to figure out: It resembles a bulky, over-turned fruit basket. The peach basket hat first appeared at the start of the 20th century, but it was shunned by many for being an "unpatriotic" display of vanity during the first world war. It was revived in the 1930s and experienced a popularity streak until the 1950s.

11. THE PORK PIE HAT

Actor Buster Keaton wearing his signature pork pie hat in 1939.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This hat is known for having a domed crown inside a pinched rim, creating a shape similar to that of a certain savory pastry. The style was originally worn by women in the 19th century and was later embraced by men’s fashion in the early 1900s (thanks in part to Buster Keaton). It’s not as popular as it was in the 1920s but it recently enjoyed a brief return to the spotlight by way of the Heisenberg character on Breaking Bad.

12. THE CARTWHEEL HAT

Actress Fanny Brice wearing a cartwheel hat circa 1910.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Out of context, a cartwheel hat could be mistaken for an hor d'oeuvres platter or a tiny landing pad. The hat was worn slightly askew for an eye-catching look and was often crafted from luxurious materials. But after catching on in the 1930s, the broad hats have since fallen out of fashion.

13. THE CHAPEAU BRAS

Bicorne hat.
Marie-Lan Nguyen, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

With the chapeau bras, gentlemen in the 18th century proved you don't need to compromise style for convenience. The bicorne shape of the hat was designed to both sit comfortably on a head and fold flat when tucked beneath an arm. The French name roughly translates to "hat arm." It was a popular hat style among military men in the 1800s, including U.S. admiral George Dewey.

14. THE BOUDOIR CAP

Hat on mannequin.

For a brief period at the turn of the 19th century, hair nets were fashionable. Women used boudoir caps to protect their hair while getting dressed in the morning or at night, though more stylish designs also worked as statement-making loungewear. Typically made from silk, muslin, or other lingerie fabric, the cap was the perfect companion to the kimono negligee, which was just beginning to gain popularity in the West at the time.

15. THE EUGÉNIE HAT

Illustration of Victorian woman.

The Eugénie hat is named after Empress Eugénie de Montijo, one half of France’s last reigning royal couple. It’s traditionally made from felt or velvet and worn tilted forward slightly to cover the wearer's eye. The hat saw an initial popularity spike in the mid-19th century, then a second after Greta Garbo worse a version of it in the 1930 film Romance.

16. THE GAINSBOROUGH HAT

Portrait of woman wearing hat.

Gainsborough hats, or picture hats, were popularized by 18th-century artist Thomas Gainsborough, who often depicted the society women in his portraits beneath massive headwear. The hats are known for their wide brims and over-the-top embellishments. It wasn't uncommon to see women walking around with stuffed birds perched on their hats during the style's peak.

17. THE PAMELA BONNET

Woman wearing bonnet.

Named for the protagonist of Samuel Richardson's 1740 novel, the Pamela bonnet was an elegant hat option for women in the 19th century. It's crafted from straw and tied with a ribbon in such a way that folds the wide brims against the wearer's cheeks. The sides of the hat slope down and away from the head, allowing the woman’s fashionable ringlets to peek out.

18. THE HALF HAT

The Queen wearing a half hat and waving from a car.

The sleek, close hat trend reached its peak in the 1950s with the half hat. Part-hat, part-hair accessory, the half hat cups the back of the skull and curves across the crown, stopping just short of the ears. Milliner Lilly Daché received an American Designer award for the hat in 1941.

19. THE WHOOPEE CAP

Actor wearing a hat.

The whoopee cap is best known as the crown hat Jughead wears in the Archie comics. Instead of buying a professionally-made version from a hat shop, wearers fashioned caps of their own by tattering the brims of old fedoras and turning them inside-out. The style appeared recently on Riverdale, the gritty Archie reboot, so a comeback may be on the way.

20. THE HOMBURG

British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden (right) with Neville Chamberlain, Leader of the Conservative Party, wearing Homburg hats while walking in London in 1937.
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Homburg isn't a household name like the top hat or the fedora, but the men’s hat is still a classic. The style is distinguished by a curled brim and a dent depressing the center of the crown. King Edward VII launched the trend in the late 19th century. When he brought a hat back with him following a visit to Bad Homburg, Germany, the rest of the world noticed his new look and started wearing Homburg hats of their own.

A shorter version of this story originally ran in 2017.

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