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A Bumpy History of the Baby on Board Sign

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From the mid to late 1980s, the most ubiquitous road sign didn’t advise you to stop, obey the speed limit, or be mindful of crossing deer. Instead, it was diamond-shaped, used a black-on-yellow color scheme, and came with a stern warning for nearby drivers: There was a baby on board.

Safety 1st

The suction-cupped alerts that stuck to a car’s rear or side windows were originally designed to notify surrounding traffic that an infant was in their midst, the idea being that drivers would either slow down or take note that a fatigued or distracted parent was operating a motor vehicle ahead of them. In the summer of 1985, barely a year after its debut, the Baby on Board sign had been affixed to more than 3 million cars, with 500,000 being sold each month.

It was a windfall for former real estate investor and Brookline, Massachusetts resident Michael Lerner, who spent $65,000 of his own money to start Safety 1st, a child-focused consumer brand that marketed everything from poison alert labels to soft faucet caps so that babies wouldn’t hurt their heads in the tub. Lerner, who had no children of his own, recalled feeling anxious as he drove his 18-month old nephew home from a family gathering in a congested traffic area; he subsequently obtained the rights to Baby on Board from two sisters, Patricia and Helen Bradley, who had seen a similar sign in Europe but didn’t know how to peddle it to prospective buyers.

Neither did retailers. Lerner spent much of his time trying to convince department stores that the signs belonged in the infant section, not their automotive display: He believed the product was a safety device, not a novelty. The claim fell on deaf ears until he met with a buyer for the now-defunct Bradlees chain. The store was making an aggressive push for child car seats and felt Lerner’s pitch fit their strategy perfectly.

Once Bradlees began carrying it, other stores like Sears and Toys "R" Us followed suit—and by 1986, the distinctive yellow signs had become as common as a spare tire.

While Lerner was profiting handsomely, he was seeing only a fraction of the car sign industry's total revenue. Once Baby on Board caught on, it became easy for companies to manufacture parody replicas: Baby Driving, Grandma on Board, Ex-Husband in Trunk, and Illiterate on Bord were all snapped up by more cynical drivers who felt the original sign was silly to suggest they'd be driving aggressively if not for the warning. At one point, the knock-offs outnumbered Lerner’s sign by five to one on roads in the New York metropolitan area.

Safety 1st

Lerner and his satirists had one thing in common: road safety experts had extreme reservations about the signs, which could potentially obstruct the driver’s view through the rear window. While some states approved them providing they were stuck to the lower half of the glass, others were more aggressive. North Carolina law insisted nothing be placed on the window; Maryland had police officers giving drivers a $30 ticket for the infraction. In 1986, the Insurance Information Institute declared the signs posed a hazard for drivers who could become distracted by trying to read them, prompting a traffic accident. They also expressed concern rescue workers could risk harm by trying to extricate a baby who may not even be on board at the time of a collision.

Lerner dismissed the phantom-baby stigma, insisting the sign was designed to be removed when the infant was absent and felt it contributed to more responsible driving. While it was impossible to discern whether it actually made a difference, the parodies certainly did: Baby Carries No Cash and other jokes helped contribute to window decal fatigue, prompting Safety 1st to focus on other products like bath seats and door signs that could tell solicitors a baby was asleep inside. In 2000, Lerner sold the company to Dorel for $38 million. In 2014, the owners estimated more than 10 million signs had been sold.

One of them was purchased by a young man named Freddy Franco. According to an April 1987 report in Florida’s News-Journal, Franco was driving on Interstate 95 when a police officer spotted the sign and pulled him over. After growing suspicious of Franco’s nervousness, the officer searched the vehicle. In addition to being in violation of a state law banning anything from rear windows, Franco also had 15 pounds of cocaine hidden in compartments. There was no baby.

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Pop Culture
How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
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Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
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“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.

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Design
The Secret to the World's Most Comfortable Bed Might Be Yak Hair
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Tengi

Savoir Beds laughs at your unspooling mail-order mattresses and their promises of ultimate comfort. The UK-based company has teamed with London's Savoy Hotel to offer what they’ve declared is one of the most luxurious nights of sleep you’ll ever experience. 

What do they have that everyone else lacks? About eight pounds of Mongolian yak hair.

The elegantly-named Savoir No. 1 Khangai Limited Edition is part of the hotel’s elite Royal Suite accommodations. For $1845 a night, guests can sink into the mattress with a topper stuffed full of yak hair from Khangai, Mongolia. Hand-combed and with heat-dispensing properties, it takes 40 yaks to make one topper. In a press release, collaborator and yarn specialist Tengri claims it “transcends all levels of comfort currently available.”

Visitors opting for such deluxe amenities also have access to a hair stylist, butler, chef, and a Rolls-Royce with a driver.

Savoir Beds has entered into a fair-share partnership with the farmers, who receive an equitable wage in exchange for the fibers, which are said to be softer than cashmere. If you’d prefer to luxuriate like that every night, the purchase price for the bed is $93,000. Purchased separately, the topper is $17,400. Act soon, as only 50 of the beds will be made available each year. 

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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