The Men Behind the Tools

iStock
iStock

You may not realize it, but you've got quite a few proper names in your toolbox or hanging above your workbench. Let's take a look at a few of the names that have helped make drilling, screwing, cleaning, and tightening a bit easier for all of us.

Ettore squeegees

squeegee
iStock

The squeegee takes its name from the sound it makes as it cleans a window, and no brand name is as closely linked to clean windows as Ettore. It's fitting, then, that Italian immigrant and window cleaner Ettore Steccone perfected the modern single-blade squeegee in 1936 with a model he called "the New Deal."

Steccone's improved design made it easier for window washers to replace worn-out blades while they were dangling high on buildings' facades, but he had to resort to some trickery to get stores to stock the New Deal. When Steccone was still operating his business out of his garage, he tried to convince the New York window cleaning supply giant J. Racenstein Company to buy an order of his squeegees. They declined. Undeterred, Steccone bet the owner that within a month the company would place an order for his squeegees. The stakes? Only the finest hat in New York City.

Here's where the trickery comes in. Steccone then went around town and gave his window-washing colleagues free squeegees to try for a day. When they came back to him with rave reviews and asked where they could buy more, Steccone directed them to the J. Racenstein Company. Sure enough, Racenstein placed an order for Steccone's wares within a month. The luxurious Borsalino hat that Racenstein bought Steccone still sits in the Ettore Products Company's offices as an oddly dapper trophy.

Black & Decker

drill
iStock

In 1910, S. Duncan Black and Alonzo G. Decker pooled $1,200 to open a machine shop in Baltimore. At first they built machines to make bottle caps and dip candy, but in 1916 they hit upon an interesting idea: What if they made a portable drill? The pair worked to obtain a patent for a drill with a pistol grip and a trigger, and the drill was suddenly a lot handier than it had been. Within three years, the Black & Decker was racking up over $1 million in annual sales.

Stanley

Although it merged with Black & Decker earlier this year, the Stanley Works' name lives on in the new corporate name Stanley Black & Decker. The company got its start in New Britain, CT in 1843 when Frederick Trent Stanley opened a shop to make door bolts and hinges from wrought iron. In 1857, his cousin Henry Stanley started a hardware company of his own, the Stanley Rule and Level Company. In 1920, the two companies finally merged to become the Stanley Works.

Allen wrenches

allen wrenches
iStock

Connecticut is a surprisingly fertile location for hardware designs. The familiar hex wrench takes its common name from the Allen Manufacturing Company of Hartford, which introduced a popular line of hex keys in 1943.

DeWalt

Carpenter using radial arm saw
iStock

Although DeWalt is now a subsidiary of Stanley Black & Decker, it traces its roots all the way back to 1922. That's when farm superintendent Raymond DeWalt ran into a problem. He needed more men to help him cut lumber to specific lengths, but his bosses wouldn't shell out any extra cash for payroll. DeWalt addressed the problem by hooking a saw to a moving yoke and an arm, which allowed one man to cut wood far more efficiently. Yes, DeWalt invented the radial arm saw, which made cutting lumber easier than the old table saws and handsaws that people had been using. DeWalt formed the DeWalt Products Company in 1924 and introduced the "Wonder-Worker," an electric woodworking machine that included his radial arm saw design.

Phillips head screw

phillips head screws
iStock

Yes, there's actually a Mr. Phillips. In the early 1930s, assembly lines were facing a conundrum. Powered mechanized screwdrivers could make production far more efficient, but they were incredibly irritating to use with the traditional flat-head screws. As soon as the tip of the screwdriver would slip into the slot, it would pop back out again.

Henry F. Phillips of Portland, OR solved all of that in 1934. His crosshead screw centered itself, and once a screwdriver was seated in the slot, it wasn't coming out. Phillips began licensing his screws to industrial plants, and they were an immediate hit. By 1937, General Motors had begun using Phillips head screws, and now you can find Phillips' name in most any toolbox.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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