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The Possible Origins of 7 Instantly Recognizable Visual Clichés

Have you ever seen someone throw an old shoe at a stray cat that’s yowling on a backyard fence? Or witnessed a circus elephant rear away in fear when a mouse crosses its path? A whole host of images have become iconic over the decades—thanks to movies, cartoons, and comic strips—despite the fact they’ve never actually been seen in real life (at least by anyone alive and reading this article).

1. BANKRUPT PERSON WEARING A BARREL

The image of a person so destitute that he is reduced to wearing a barrel held up by a pair of suspenders was first popularized by political cartoonist Will Johnstone. His first such portrayal of “The Taxpayer,” a person from whom the IRS has literally taken the shirt off their back, was published in the New York World Telegram in 1933, and would reappear frequently as the Great Depression continued to wear down America’s morale. In reality, though, barrels aren’t cheap, and the logistics (not to mention the risk of splinters in uncomfortable bodily areas) of actually outfitting one for daily wear make this an unlikely alternative to public nudity.

2. DRINKING CHAMPAGNE OUT OF A LADY’S SHOE

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A sophisticated swain sipping fine champagne from a seductive sylph’s stiletto is the very picture of elegant decadence. Legend has it that this tableau originated at a party held in 1902 at Chicago’s Everleigh Club, one of the nation’s most exclusive brothels at the time. The guest of honor was Prince Henry of Prussia, and during the festivities one of the house “butterflies” (as the working girls employed by the club were called) was dancing on a tabletop to “The Blue Danube” when her slipper flew off of her foot and knocked over a bottle of champagne. A member of the Prince’s entourage supposedly picked up the slipper and placed it to his lips, sipping the bit of bubbly that had dripped into it. “The darling shouldn’t get her feet wet,” he explained to onlookers. (However, there are also those who say the original champagne-from-a-shoe drinkers were Russian ballerinas of the late 19th century, or members of Toulouse Lautrec's set from around the same time.)

3. LIFE OF THE PARTY WEARING A LAMPSHADE ON HIS HEAD

Several years ago, President Obama warned some St. Patrick’s Day partiers at the White House not to get too rambunctious—specifically, to refrain from putting lampshades on their heads—since there were plenty of photographers lurking nearby, and the pictures may well come back to haunt some members of Congress in attendance. It’s impossible to pinpoint when someone donning a lampshade as headgear signaled that the party had officially kicked into high gear, but a 1928 Baltimore Evening Sun piece entitled “Life of the Party” seems to indicate that the practice was common enough at the time to warrant a “been there, done that, caught heck from my wife the next day” reaction from readers. Before that, the image likely arose out of vaudeville, and was then popularized by early silent films.

4. CHEF KISSING HIS FINGERTIPS

We usually see this image, of a chef expressing the perfection of the meal he’s prepared, on restaurant signs or menus—and more often than not, the pictured chef is Italian. The meaning is immediately understood: the food served in this establishment is done to perfection. But outside of any TV/movie restaurant scene featuring Vito Scotti as a gourmand, has anyone ever really witnessed a chef recommending a dish with such a gesture? The cliché itself, however, may have some basis in an actual Italian hand gesture of kissing the fingertips before tossing them away—a move meaning something like "beautiful," "delicious," or "as good as a kiss."

5. BANK ROBBER WITH DOLLAR SIGN SACKS

It’s doubtful that any financial institution ever actually transported cash in containers emblazoned with giant dollar signs—in the grand scheme of things such markings would seem counter to standard security precautions, no? Interestingly enough, however, in April 2015 a gentleman robbed an Olympia, Washington, Subway restaurant and provided a homemade dollar sign bag to the startled sandwich artist (whom he warned “not to do anything funny,” in true film noir fashion). True, he didn’t wear a Lone Ranger mask and horizontally-striped shirt while committing his heist, but the local flatfoots nabbed him nevertheless.

6. KID RUNNING AWAY FROM HOME WITH HIS BELONGINGS ON A STICK

The “hobo stick” or, more properly, bindle originated (as the name suggests) with the vagabonds and migratory workers of the Depression. Hobos were frequently penniless, so they hopped on freight trains and traveled from city to city looking for work. Plastic shopping bags hadn’t yet been invented, so hobos tied their meager belongings into a large kerchief and hung the bundle from a stave or stick for ease of carrying. Somewhere along the way, the hobo stick became a symbol cartoonists used to instantly identify a child as a runaway, as in Norman Rockwell’s famous 1958 Saturday Evening Post cover entitled “The Runaway.”

7. A BOMB THAT LOOKS LIKE A CANNONBALL

Thanks to pop culture staples such as the board game Stratego and MAD Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” comic strip, Baby Boomer-era American youngsters grew up thinking that all bombs looked like a bowling ball with a fuse sticking out of the top. The cannonball-style bomb does, in fact, have some basis in history; after gunpowder reached Europe in the 1300s, for several centuries Western militaries used dark metal spheres filled with explosives, sometimes designed to be shot out of a cannon. The addition of a loose string wick, however, seems to be a cartoonist's fantasy.

All images via iStock except where noted.

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5 Simple Seating Tricks That Will Transform Your Living Room
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Seating arrangements can make or break a social event. Whether it's a cocktail party, a book club get-together, or a Game of Thrones binge night, you want a setup that makes socializing easy and enjoyable. The right combo of comfortable chairs, tables, and other furniture is the key to making your abode more inviting and homey. We’ve got five ways to hack your living room seating for social occasions or everyday life.

1. MAKE THE TV THE FOCAL POINT OF THE ROOM.

When people are over to watch the season finale of your favorite show, the TV becomes the obvious focal point of the gathering. You can easily calculate the optimal viewing distance for your seating based on the size of your TV. For 1080p screen, double your TV's diagonal measurement to get the proper distance in inches, which you can then convert to feet.

Let's say you have a 43-inch TV—multiply that by two and you get 86 inches, or about 7 feet, as your best viewing distance. A 48-inch screen, which is one of the most popular sizes for living rooms, will allow you 8 feet of viewing space. If you have a higher-def 4K TV screen, you can sit a little closer: Experts recommend a distance of one to 1.5 times the screen size.

Now that you have the right distance in mind, arrange your couch in front and place other chairs at varied heights at the sides and behind it. Have plenty of comfy floor cushions for those who don’t snag a sofa seat so that everyone has a good sightline to the TV.

2. CREATE A CONVERSATIONAL CIRCLE.

When the social event doesn't require everyone to face the same direction, arrange the seating in a circle around a central point. This setup works best for book club meetings and gatherings where casual conversation is the main draw. Opt for a round table at the center for setting drinks and snacks. “At a round table you can see everyone at once, whereas at a rectangular table, there’s a chance you’re not seeing the faces of people on your side two or more seats down, making it difficult to chat with them,” Whitney McGregor of Whitney McGregor Designs in Greenville, South Carolina, tells Mental Floss.

A 2007 study suggested that people are drawn to circles and softer organic shapes because the rounded edges are perceived as less dangerous than sharp edges. Create a similar feel of safety, comfort, and inclusiveness in your living room with a set of chairs around a circular coffee table or a large tufted ottoman.

3. LEAVE SOME SPACE—BUT NOT TOO MUCH— BETWEEN SEATS AND TABLES.

Seating arrangement with turquoise curtains
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To keep conversation flowing, leave at least 3 feet of space between each seat (not including couches, where people are expected to chat more intimately). For example, place arm chairs about 3 feet away from the ends of the sofa or 5 to 6 feet across from the sofa. The coffee table, whether round, square, or rectangular, should sit about 14 to 18 inches from the front of the couch—far enough to provide comfortable legroom, but close enough to set a drink down without getting up.

These cushions of space prevent guests from feeling like they're sitting on top of one another, according to Apartment Therapy. But a stretch of 10 feet or more is too much to converse easily, so pull out the tape measure as needed.

4. FRESHEN A STUFFY ARRANGEMENT WITH ASYMMETRY.

It's possible to switch up the whole feeling of your room—without purchasing new furniture—by changing the existing seating and accent tables from a symmetrical to an asymmetrical arrangement, and vice versa. “Asymmetry versus symmetry can be a fickle thing,” Christy Davis of Christy Davis Interiors in Columbia, South Carolina, tells Mental Floss. “Symmetry gives a sense of wholeness and completeness, whereas asymmetry makes you think a little more because it’s not as common as symmetry.”

Do you crave that whole and complete feeling? Put two matching chairs on either side of a table to make the room seem more visually balanced and formal. For a casual look with more energy, take those same two chairs and put them in a random order: One to the left of the couch as a discrete conversational seating area, and the other on the opposite wall and farther down in the room, along with a side table and lamp, as its own smaller conversation nook.

5. ADD SURFACES FOR DRINKS AND MORE.

With every good seat comes the need for a place to set a drink, your phone, or the remote control. While you want your coffee table at least 14 inches in front of the couch, the rules for accent table placement are a little looser. Try sitting in each location in your room and checking if there’s a place to set your glass within each reaching distance. If not, add a side table or garden stool, then dress it up with plants and photos. According to The Spruce, the side table should be about the same height as the arm of the seat it's next to.

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These Suitcases Convert Into a Mini Kitchen, Office, or Bed
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Finally, a product has been released to appease travelers who have long demanded a suitcase they can cook scrambled eggs on. A new line by Italian designer Marc Sadler, spotted by Lonely Planet, features three aluminum suitcases that can be converted into either a mini kitchen, a work station, or even a bed.

A cooktop suitcase
Marc Sadler

The cook station suitcase will soon be released as part of the special edition Bank collection, which will be sold by suitcase brand Fabbrica Pelletterie Milano. It comes with built-in power, a cooktop, mini fridge, several drawers with cutlery, and a foldable chopping table.

Those who travel often for work may want to opt instead for the workstation suitcase, which features a pull-out chair, work surface, electrical outlets, and wooden drawers. Ideal for camping, the bed station comes with a fold-out wooden frame and mattress topper. It also happens to be the most expensive of the three, at a cost of €6900 ($8135).

A suitcase converts to a pull-out bed
Marc Sadler

A suitcase with a built-in desk and drawers
Marc Sadler

It's unclear whether these suitcases would make it through airport security, but TSA does permit camp stoves as long as they don't have fuel inside them. Don't try to make breakfast while waiting at your gate, though—there are probably rules against that.

[h/t Lonely Planet]

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