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15 Swab-Worthy Facts About Q-Tips

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Next to toilet paper, nothing in your bathroom may be as indispensable, useful, and plentiful as Q-Tips. The trademarked cotton swab has been a staple of medicine cabinets since 1923. Check out some facts that may have you looking at the cotton-topped sticks in a new light.

1. THEY WERE ORIGINALLY CALLED “BABY GAYS.”

Polish inventor Leo Gerstenzang was struck by the idea of a mass-produced swab when he saw his wife stick cotton balls on both ends of a toothpick and use the makeshift tool to clean out their child’s ears. He marketed them under the name Baby Gays from 1923 to 1926, when the name was changed to Q-Tip Baby Gays, and eventually just Q-Tips. (The “Q” stands for “quality.”)

2. THEY WERE DIPPED IN BORIC ACID ...

Wanting to promote the idea of the Q-Tip as a personal hygiene instrument, Gerstenzang had his factory workers dip the swabs in boric acid before being shipped out. The chemical has antiviral and antifungal properties and was used to sterilize the swabs.

3. … WHICH ONCE RESULTED IN A GOVERNMENT SEIZURE.

In 1939, U.S. attorneys reported that a sample size of Q-Tip shipments contained only a trace of boric acid; the swabs themselves were contaminated with micro-organisms. Declaring Q-Tips were misbranded as sterile, the government seized over 200 packages and the product was destroyed.

4. THERE WAS AN ENTIRE “Q” LINE OF GOODS.

Gerstenzang initially offered an entire line of infant care products with the “Q” prefix: Q-Talc, Q-Soaps, Q-Oil, and Q-Cream, which came in a kit labeled Q-Things.

5. THEY STAYED WOODEN FOR DECADES.

Q-Tips were made using a wooden stalk until 1958, when the company bought Paper Sticks Ltd. of England, which made paper sticks for confectionary companies.

6. YOU REALLY AREN’T SUPPOSED TO USE THEM IN YOUR EARS.

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Though the company originally endorsed the Q-Tip as being useful for cleaning out earwax, the medical community didn’t agree. Speaking with National Public Radio in 2008, otologist Dennis Fitzgerald summarized concerns by saying that swabs of any kind tend to push earwax further into the ear canal, cause abrasions on the skin of the canal that can lead to infection—and even the very occasional impalement if someone happens to hit your arm while you’re cleaning. Chesebrough-Ponds bought Q-Tips in 1962 and added a warning about using them in the ears in the 1970s.

7. THEY’RE GOOD FOR CLEANING FAUCETS.

Unilever, the current parent company of Q-Tips, suggests that consumers can clean the gunk from their faucet edges and nozzles using the swabs.

8. THEY GOT A LITTLE SALTY WITH JOHNSON & JOHNSON.

In 1958, Q-Tips sued Johnson & Johnson for trademark infringement, arguing that the latter’s Johnson’s Cotton Tips were derivative of their own swabs. In its ruling for injunction in favor of Q-Tips, the court found that J&J’s use of “tips” as opposed to “swabs” was intended to “come as close as it thought legally possible to Q-Tips and bask in the reflected popularity of plaintiff's name.” The company also slapped down Twin-Tips and Tips for Tots in similar fashion.

9. THEY CAN HELP GET A ZIPPER UNSTUCK.

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According to the personal grooming experts at Cosmopolitan, a Q-Tip dipped in shampoo and rubbed into the area where a zipper is caught on a jacket can loosen the entanglement and help resolve your clothing crisis.

10. IT’S PART OF POLICE LINGO.

When police officers arrive at the scene of a crime and emotion or adrenaline threatens to override their training, dispatchers or other officers will use the code word “Q-TIP.” It’s an acronym for “Quit Taking It Personally,” and it’s intended to remind them to maintain control of the situation.

11. THEY MIGHT HELP YOUR CELL PHONE CHARGE.

Q-Tips’ official list of recommended uses includes cleaning the battery contacts on your cell phone and charger to provide a dust-free connection between the devices.

12. BABIES CAN USE THEM FOR PAINT BRUSHES.

Tiny hands find Jackson Pollock-sized brushes difficult to grab; Q-Tips recommends using the swabs for arts and crafts projects when a regular brush is too large.

13. THE JAPANESE PREFER BLACK SWABS.

Not strictly Q-Tips, Japanese cotton swabs are sometimes found as black-tipped sticks. Why black? According to one Japanese travel blog, the color makes it easier to see what kind of wax or other assorted gunk you’ve pried out of your orifices.

14. THEY CAN HELP DETECT NICKEL IN JEWELRY.

Some people can develop a local allergic reaction to nickel in jewelry, causing redness and irritation. To see if your bracelet is among the offenders, you can rub a Q-Tip containing ammonia and dimethylglyoxime (a compound that detects nickel) on the surface. If it turns pink, it’s probably lousy with the metal.

15. MAN VS. Q-TIP DID NOT END WELL.

When Buddy Stanley walked into Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis on December 25, 2007, a discarded Q-Tip on the floor proved hazardous: Stanley claimed he slipped on the swab, fell, and injured his shoulder and lumbar areas. According to the Madison Record, he sued Barnes for $50,000 for “failing to warn him” of the danger. The case was dismissed in 2013.

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Maine Residents Celebrate the Inventor of Modern-Day Earmuffs
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In addition to holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah, Maine residents celebrate the invention of earmuffs each December. Their appreciation for the winter wardrobe staple runs deeper than most, as Chester Greenwood—who is credited with inventing the modern-day earmuff at age 15—hailed from Farmington, Maine, according to the Associated Press.

In 1977, Maine's legislature designated December 21 (typically the first day of winter) as Chester Greenwood Day. The annual state holiday celebrates Greenwood and his snug ear coverings, which he first created in 1873.

As The Washington Post reports, Greenwood loved to ice skate, but hated the frostbite that plagued his sensitive ears. The teen was reportedly allergic to wool caps with earflaps, so he asked his grandma to sew either little flannel or fur pads onto the ends of a bent wire ring. Greenwood wore the contraption around his head, and it wasn’t long before his friends (who initially made fun of the headgear) had also adopted the look.

Greenwood tweaked his cold-weather accessory over the years, replacing the wire with bands and adding hinges to the ear pads, among other changes. In his mid-twenties, the inventor launched his own factory near Farmington, employing 11 workers who produced as many as 50,000 pairs of earmuffs in a single year. By the time Greenwood died in 1937, the number had skyrocketed to 400,000.

Some say that Greenwood technically didn’t pioneer the concept of earmuffs. He simply perfected the design by adding the earflap hinges that provide extra pressure, patent agents say. Still, the Farmington native would go on to invent nearly 100 other devices, five of which received patents.

Greenwood's earmuff factory closed in the wake of his 1937 death, but his legacy (and now-ubiquitous winter headgear) lives on, thanks in part to chilly Mainers. While the official holiday is December 21, Farmington residents follow the state legislature’s instructions “to observe [Chester Greenwood Day] in suitable places with appropriate ceremony and activity” on the first Saturday in December—closer to Greenwood's birthday of December 4—with parades and winter activities.

[h/t Associated Press]

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11 Things We Learned About Hedy Lamarr From Bombshell
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At the height of her fame in the 1940s, Hedy Lamarr was hailed as the most beautiful face in Hollywood. Her roles in films like Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and Samson and Delilah (1949) made her a household name, but the work she did off-screen reflected a completely different side of the glamorous Hollywood A-lister. She helped develop frequency hopping technology in an effort to aid the Allied Forces during World War II. Her invention would eventually become the basis for sophisticated military gear, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi, but it wasn’t until 1990 that her accomplishments were recognized in a story for Forbes.

Now, decades later, the original audio recording from that Forbes interview has been unearthed. Lamarr’s story in her own words is featured in Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, a new documentary written and directed by Alexandra Dean, which details the life of the icon. Here are 11 things we learned about Lamarr from the film, which is in theaters now.

1. SHE WAS AN INVENTOR FROM AN EARLY AGE.

Born in Austria in 1914 as Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler, Hedy’s urge to tinker was evident early on. According to her son, Anthony Loder, she showed an interest in technology at age five. “She took an old-fashioned music box apart and put it back together again,” he said. As she grew older, Lamarr became more curious and her inventions grew more ambitious.

2. HER FAVORITE SUBJECT WAS CHEMISTRY.

As a student at a private school in Vienna, Lamarr enjoyed mixing together materials in her chemistry class. Many years later she told Forbes journalist Fleming Meeks that she was quite good at it. But instead of furthering her education, Lamarr pursued a career in cinema as a teenager.

3. HITLER BANNED HER FIRST FILM.

Portrait of artist Hedy Lamarr.
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Hedy received her first acting credit in the Czech-Austrian romance Ecstasy (1933). The film was controversial for its day, and Hedy’s performance caused the biggest stir: In the movie she appears nude and simulates what was likely the first female orgasm in a feature film. But the risque content wasn’t Hitler’s reason for condemning the film: He told the U.S. press he banned it because the lead actress was Jewish.

4. SHE NEGOTIATED A HIGHER SALARY FROM MGM.

As Jewish actors and actresses were fleeing the Nazis, Louis B. Mayer of MGM came to Europe with the plan to sign some of them to his studio for a cheap price. When he met Hedy he said he was willing to pay her $125 a week, an offer she immediately refused. “She said, ‘I’m sorry that’s not good enough’ and walked out," said Richard Rhodes, author of the biography Hedy’s Folly. “People didn’t usually turn down Metro-Goldwyn Mayer.” But Hedy wasn’t about to let the opportunity slip away from her. She booked passage to America on the same ship Mayer was taking. Once on board, she put on her most becoming dress and jewelry and walked through the dining hall, making sure she passed Mayer’s table on the way. “I don’t know why, I don’t know what, but all of a sudden I got $500 every week,” Hedy said.

5. LOUIS B. MAYER’S WIFE CHOSE HER LAST NAME.

After persuading Hedy to work with him, Mayer decided she needed a new name to match her Hollywood persona. His wife Margaret suggested she take the name of her favorite silent film star Barbara La Marr. The last name also sounds like the French word for the sea (la mer), adding to its romantic appeal.

6. SHE WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR SNOW WHITE.


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The first Disney princess Snow White was modeled on Lamarr’s classic beauty. That’s not the only iconic cartoon she inspired. Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger said they referred to the actress when creating Catwoman.

7. SHE DATED JOHN F. KENNEDY.

In addition to her six husbands, Lamarr dated plenty of famous men. She even saw John F. Kennedy for a brief period before he became president. Lamarr described the conversation leading up to their date: “He said, ‘What can I bring you?’ I said oranges, because I like vitamin C.”

8. HER INVENTION COULD HAVE CHANGED THE WAR.

Even as she rose to stardom, Lamarr never forgot the war ravaging her home continent. One issue she learned of concerned the U.S. Navy. The torpedoes shot from American submarines were controlled by radio waves, but German forces were jamming the signals before the weapons reached their targets. Hedy came up with a solution: Make radio signals impossible to detect by sending them through rapidly-changing frequencies. “It was so obvious,” she said. “They shot torpedoes in all directions and never hit the target so I invented something that does.”

She dubbed her invention “frequency hopping.” She collaborated with her friend and famous pianist George Antheil to work the concept into a usable design. They successfully applied for a patent, but unfortunately weren’t able to get the Navy to take the idea seriously during World War II.

9. SHE SENT HER BODY DOUBLE TO COURT IN HER PLACE.


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The day Lamarr was set to testify in court over her divorce from her fifth husband, Howard Lee, her son got into a serious car accident. “Stressed and traumatized to the point of breakdown, she sent her Hollywood body double to testify in her place,” Rhodes said. This angered the judge so much that he slashed her share of the divorce settlement.

10. SHE HATED HER BOOK.

Hedy Lamarr’s 1966 autobiography Ecstasy and Me was written by a ghost writer. “Hedy’s manager was allegedly paid to get her to sign off on what turned out to be a salacious tell-all,” Bombshell producer Adam Haggiag said. “It focused on her sexuality and made her the butt of a joke.” Hedy had planned to write a more authentic version of her life story, but she died without publishing a second book.

11. SHE WAS NEVER PAID FOR HER INVENTION.

Though it was shelved at first, frequency hopping turned out to be hugely influential. The early technology can be seen in GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and military satellites today, and the total market value of the invention is estimated to be about $30 billion. But Lamarr was never paid for her contribution. In 1969, she learned that her designs had become widespread in Navy vessels. There’s evidence that the military used her patent before it expired, but by the time she became aware of this her window to sue them had already passed. While she wasn’t compensated, Lamarr did eventually receive the recognition she deserved for her work. In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Her son Anthony said, “She would love to be remembered as someone who contributed to the well-being of humankind.”

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