5 Things You Didn't Know About Charles Lindbergh

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Charles Lindbergh was born 109 years ago today. In honor of the famed aviator’s birthday, let’s hop onto five things you might not know about The Lone Eagle.

1. He Was Time’s First Man of the Year

After Lindbergh made his celebrated transatlantic flight in May 1927, he found his picture splashed on the cover of every newspaper and magazine in the country. Well, almost every magazine. Time made the curious decision not to run with Lindbergh as its cover subject for the next edition, a choice that editors quickly regretted.

By the end of the year, though, the same editors struck on a clever way to rectify their omission and also move some magazines. When faced with a slow news week, they decided to devote an entire issue to Lindbergh’s influential flight. The magazine slapped a portrait of Lindy on its cover and dubbed him “Man of the Year.”

Although the article began a beloved tradition for Time’s readers, it reads a little awkwardly now. The article begins by listing Lindbergh’s height, age, eye color, cheek color (pink, in case you were wondering), and foot size. (“Large. When he arrived at the Embassy in France no shoes big enough were handy.”) The article then lists Lindbergh’s habits: “Smokes not; drinks not. Does not gamble. Eats a thorough-going breakfast. Prefers light luncheon and dinner when permitted. Avoids rich dishes. Likes sweets.” The piece an analysis of his handwriting, which showed “Superiority, intellectualism, cerebration, idealism, even mysticism.”

2. He Helped Invent an Artificial Heart

Charles Lindbergh
Central Press/Getty Images

Lindbergh gained international renown for his transatlantic flight, but most people aren’t quite as familiar with the contribution he made to medical science. Lindbergh became keenly interested in cardiology when his sister-in-law was fighting against what proved to be fatal mitral stenosis in 1930, and he wondered why it was impossible to surgically fix a damaged heart.

As Lindbergh’s interest in heart surgery grew, he ended up working with Dr. Alexis Carrel at New York’s Rockefeller Institute on a system to keep organs alive outside of the body by circulating nutrient-rich fluids through them. Carrel wasn’t some quack who wanted to capitalize on Lindbergh’s fame, either; at that point in his career the doctor had already won a Nobel Prize for his work on organ transplants.

Lindbergh lent his unique mechanical acumen to his research with Carrel, and the pilot eventually perfected a glass perfusion pump that could maintain a heart in a sterile environment. The breakthrough helped other scientists eventually create the first artificial heart. Lindbergh and Carrel even coauthored the 1938 medical text The Culture of Organs, which included an early description of how an artificial heart would work.

3. He Only Drew a Steady Paycheck Once

Charles Lindbergh
Keystone/Getty Images

While Lindbergh enjoyed early success as a pilot and became a reserve airman for the Army, a 1974 New York Times profile by Alden Whitman noted that the aviator only held down one “paycheck job” over the course of his life. Lindbergh worked on the side as an aviation instructor and a circus stunt flier for fairs as a young pilot, but the only steady gig he ever held was a post as chief pilot on a mail run between St. Louis and Chicago that he started in 1926.

According to Lindbergh, it was on one of these runs for the Robertson Aircraft Company that he had the epiphany that a nonstop flight from New York to Paris was possible. Upon returning to St. Louis after the run, Lindbergh started scaring up funding for his historic trip. A group of St. Louis businessmen staked him for $15,000, which was part of the reason Lindbergh dubbed his plane The Spirit of St. Louis. The less-exciting working name of the plane had been “the Ryan NYP,” which reflected the plane’s maker (Ryan Airlines) and its objective (New York to Paris).

4. He Became a Big Advocate for Conservation

Charles Lindbergh
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Later in his life Lindbergh turned his attention from aviation and cardiology to conservation. The same Whitman article from the Times includes a quote on Lindbergh’s 1964 realization that he should devote his energies to conservation. On a trip to Africa, Lindbergh said, “Lying under an acacia tree with the sounds of the dawn around me. I realized more clearly the facts that man should never overlook: that the construction of an airplane for instance, is simple when compared to the evolutionary achievement of a bird; that airplanes depend on advanced civilization, and that where civilization is most advanced few birds exist. I realized that if I had to choose I would rather have birds than airplanes."

Lindbergh spent the rest of his life vigorously campaigning for various conservationist causes. In 1968 he made his first public speech in 27 years to implore the Alaska Legislature to consider conservation legislation. He made trips to the Philippines to work with President Ferdinand Marcos to establish a sanctuary for the tamaraw, an endangered hoofed mammal.

5. He Had a Secret German Family

Charles Lindbergh
Keystone/Getty Images

It’s anyone’s guess how one of the world’s most famous people pulled it off – it probably didn’t hurt that Lindbergh was famously camera-shy in his later years – but Lindbergh managed to father an entire secret family in Germany during the 1950s and 1960s.

Lindbergh met hat maker Brigitte Hesshaimer while visiting Germany in 1957, and the two began an affair that produced two sons and a daughter. Lindbergh would visit the family several times a year, but the children never knew that their father was the famous aviator. Instead, they thought he was an American writer named Careau Kent.

After his death, though, they found bundles and letters and photographs of Lindbergh and realized they were his children. Their mother confirmed their suspicions but asked that they not reveal their paternity until after her death. When she passed away in 2003 the Hesshaimer children finally told the media about their famous father. DNA tests confirmed their claims.

The story gets even wilder, though. According to the Hesshaimer children, Lindbergh was simultaneously having an affair with their mother’s sister, Marietta. These trysts allegedly produced two more sons, although a 2005 Telegraph story noted that Marietta Hesshaimer’s sons were remaining mum about their paternity out of respect for their mother’s wishes.

The Tumultuous History of Tinsel

PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images
PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images

When December rolls around, we find ourselves asking the same questions: What’s in figgy pudding? Why do I need to make the Yuletide gay? And what is tinsel exactly?

That last question is only slightly less mystifying than the first two. Many of us have seen tinsel—if not in person, then in one of the countless holiday movies and television specials that air this time of year. It’s the stringy, shiny, silvery stuff that’s hung up as decoration, primarily on Christmas trees. But what is it made of? And why is it associated with the holiday season? This is where the seemingly simple decoration gets complicated.

Tinsel is one of the cheaper items used to trim trees today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 17th century Germany, the first Christmas trees were embellished with tinsel made from real silver pressed into strips. These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lit candles, and the silver combined with the flickering firelight created a twinkly effect that worked as a precursor to modern-day string lights.

Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. It was expensive, so only the wealthiest families had access to it. And those who did have enough money to own tinsel had a limited window to use it, as the metal often tarnished before December 25.

By the early 1900s, the Christmas traditions imported by German immigrants had become mainstream in the U.S. Americans were looking for affordable ways to beautify the evergreens in their living rooms, so manufacturers started making tinsel out of aluminum and copper. The updated decorations produced the same festive sparkle as the silver versions, but for a fraction of the price; also, they could be reused year after year. But they weren’t perfect: The aluminum paper in tinsel was extremely flammable, making it a disastrous choice for dry trees decorated with lights. When World War I began, copper production was funneled toward the war effort and tinsel disappeared from holiday displays.

Its absence turned out to be temporary. Despite centuries of hiccups, makers of holiday decor still believed tinsel deserved a place in modern Christmas celebrations. They just needed to come up with the right material to use, something that could be hung in every home without any backlash. In the early 20th century, the clear choice was lead.

Lead revived tinsel from obscurity, and soon it was embraced as a standard Christmas component along with ornaments and electric lights. It became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that tinsel is often thought of as a mid-century fad rather than a tradition that’s been around as long as Christmas trees themselves.

With so many synthetic decorations becoming available around Christmastime, tinsel made from metal was considered one of the safer items to have in the home. A 1959 newspaper article on holiday safety reads: “Tinsel is fairly safe, because even if kiddies decide to swallow it, it will not cause poisoning.”

As we know today, tinsel made from lead isn’t “fairly safe.” Lead that gets ingested or absorbed through the skin can cause headaches, vomiting, constipation, and in extreme cases, brain and kidney damage. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government started setting limits on how much lead can be in consumer products, and in 1972, the FDA came to an agreement with tinsel manufacturers that production of the lead product would cease.

It may not be as en vogue as it was 60 years ago, but tinsel still resurfaces every holiday season. So if the tinsel we use today isn’t made from silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? The answer is polyvinyl chloride. Industrial machines shred shiny ribbons of the plastic to make the wispy strands that add a bit of glamour to Christmas trees. Plastic tinsel isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metal, and it’s lightweight, so it’s less likely to stay put after it’s hung over a pine branch. For these reasons, PVC tinsel never caught on to the degree of its predecessor, but it still succeeds in bringing vintage bling to the holidays without poisoning your family.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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