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A Bubbly History of the Heart-Shaped Hot Tub

Penthouse—the most prominent authority on such matters—once called it “a sexual Disneyland.” It housed a gift shop containing adult novelty items. A stark-naked statue of Apollo greeted visitors in the lobby entrance. A “social director” was on hand to foster banter among couples and make off-color jokes to loosen their libidos. Its rooms were wall-carpeted and mirrored.

It was Cove Haven, and for decades it was the premier Poconos resort destination for newlyweds across the northeast. Its popularity was chiefly attributed to two things: the marketing acumen of co-founder Morris B. Wilkins, and the iconic, charmingly tacky hot tub he designed that was shaped like a heart.

Cove Haven Resorts

Born to Russian immigrants in 1925, Wilkins was an unlikely savior of the honeymoon hospitality industry. After a stint as a submariner in World War II, the Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania native started working as an electrician. Business went well until Hurricane Diane swept up his office space and equipment in 1955, leveling all of his material goods. Settling in as a freelancer, he and pal Harold “Obie” O’Brien were working on renovations for a Poconos-area hotel when they both noticed the accommodations were absolutely awful. The men believed they could do better, so they purchased an 18-room resort, the Hotel Pocopaupac in Lakeville, in 1958.

Since the end of the war, gas shortages had led to more and more newlyweds taking the shorter trip to the Poconos—a four-county area about the size of Delaware—rather than Niagara Falls. What was missing was a sense of levity or fun. Wilkins and O’Brien changed the name of the hotel to Cove Haven and promptly began renovating the property so that it might appeal to the increasingly provocative tastes of 1960s couples. Ostentatious accents replaced neutral colors; the room, he believed, would become the star attraction for those seeking a reservation.

But Wilkins needed time. When business was slow, he’d conserve electricity by holding business meetings in the dark. And despite his ability to recognize how hospitality would need to change, it took a few years for him to figure out exactly how.

According to “Honest” Phil Policare, Cove Haven's "Chief Excitement Officer," Wilkins and O’Brien had their epiphany one night in 1963, when the two were struggling to cart a round hot tub down a flight of stairs. In order to make the turn at the bottom, the men temporarily pushed in one side of the flexible material and noticed it resembled a heart. Other accounts mention that Wilkins dreamed up the notion in the middle of the night, sketching a heart over a concrete floor.

However he came to the idea, Wilkins poured concrete for the first six heart-shaped tubs himself, with dozens more added as Cove Haven continued to expand to its eventual size of 236 rooms.

The Sweetheart Tub was tiled in red, comfortable enough for two, and featured mirrors on the walls. Word of mouth quickly spread, as did Wilkins's particular design aesthetic. Soon, Cove Haven was home to guests—couples only—who came to sightsee the attractions in their quarters: circular or heart-shaped beds, multi-level rooms, and private swimming pools.

Eager to expand, the partners sold Cove Haven to Caesars Resorts in 1969. (O’Brien passed away five years later in a plane crash.) Wilkins promptly opened two more Poconos-area resorts, just in time for an explosion of popularity after the heart-shaped tub was photographed for a 1971 Life magazine spread about the opening of Interstate 80. The exposure was so positive that Wilkins had to borrow $10,000 the following week just so that he had enough liquid cash to print more resort brochures.

That single photo in Life helped make the heart-shaped tub synonymous with honeymoon accommodations, encapsulating everything anyone would ever need to know about the atmosphere in the region. As Wilkins watched his Poconos empire grow through the next few decades, he became known as the innovator behind the beautifully kitschy newlywed experience.

Cove Haven Resorts

With the success of the heart-shaped tub driving business, Wilkins came up a more ambitious idea: He wanted to install a 7-foot-tall champagne glass in his suites that could double as a whirlpool. It would be novel, look terrific in advertising, and create a little bit of mystery: without a ladder, how could couples even get in?

Wilkins's financiers at Caesars weren’t interested. They dismissed the idea as silly and let it percolate in the hotelier's head for nearly a decade before giving in. Debuting in 1984, the champagne glass whirlpool became another Poconos and Cove Haven trademark, appearing to be balanced on a thin stem while couples marinated in the bubbly water. Rooms featuring the glass were booked as far as 18 months out. (The secret to getting in was simple: the living room where it was located was sunken, and guests would climb in from the second-floor bedroom.)

Business continued booming through the 1980s. Rooms went for $380 for two nights, and Wilkins was hailed as a hospitality legend. Heart-shaped everything seemed to pervade the Poconos, with a quarter of its 16,000 beds cut into the novelty design.

Then airline travel got cheaper, and Vegas got wiser. As airfares went down and rooms in other destination locations began to resemble the Wilkins model, attendance dropped. Several Poconos-area resorts were closed by 1999, the year Wilkins retired.

Today, roughly 437 heart-shaped hot tubs remain in the three Cove Haven resorts, with an untold number installed around the country. While Wilkins had managed to patent his champagne whirlpool, he was unsuccessful in obtaining the same protection for the tub. For $2395, anyone can have one ready to be installed in their own personal lover’s retreat.

Wilkins died at age 90 in 2015. Though he left behind four children, it could be argued he was responsible for many, many more.

"I don’t know how many babies we’ve conceived here," Wilkins told The Washington Post in 1988. "It must be an army."

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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