10 Strange Questions People Asked NYPL Librarians Before Google

The New York Public Library's Rose Main Reading Room
The New York Public Library's Rose Main Reading Room
cla78/iStock via Getty Images

Some of us can barely get through a dinner conversation without consulting Google, our search histories littered with queries both banal ("Why do airlines serve peanuts?") and unusual ("Does the full moon really make people act crazy?"). But before the dawn of the internet, people often turned to librarians to answer life's little (and not-so-little) questions. A couple of years ago, staff at the New York Public Library discovered a small gray file box filled with questions posed to the venerable institution's librarians between 1940 and 1980. A new book, Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers: A Little Book of Whimsy and Wisdom from the Files of The New York Public Library collects these questions alongside answers provided by NYPL librarians today, and featuring illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Barry Blitt. We've rounded up some of our favorite questions below.

1. Is it possible to keep an octopus in a private home? (1944)

Barry Blitt/St. Martin’s Publishing Group

Yes, but they require a lot of work and you better keep a tight lid on their tank. Octopuses are excellent escape artists. A good place to start your research is The Octopus News Magazine Online. Want to learn more about these creatures in general? You can find books about octopuses at your local library under the Dewey number 594.56.

2. What is the significance of the hip movement in the Hawaiian dance? (1944)

It’s complicated, depending greatly on the specific movement and the context in which it is placed given that the Hawaiian hula is a sacred ritual dance in which every movement of the performer is codified and deeply symbolic. As definitive a book as it gets is Mahealani Uchiyama’s 2016 The Haumana Hula Handbook for Students of Hawaiian Dance, which describes in depth the origins, language, etiquette, ceremonies, and the spiritual culture of hula. Ultimately though, the full significance could never be communicated in writing—to paraphrase the famed apothegm, writing about hip movements is like singing about architecture.

3. What time does a bluebird sing? (1944)

Well, the eastern bluebird sings whenever it is motivated to. Most often, males are motivated by seeing nice female bluebirds they want to court, or seeing them laying eggs (at which time they sing softly, which is sweet). Females are motivated to sing more rarely, but may do so when they see predators.

You can hear their recorded song at the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and learn more through Vassar College’s page as well.

4. How much did Napoleon’s brain weigh? (1945)

Unfortunately, Napoleon’s brain was never weighed after his death on St. Helena in 1821. In the 19th century there was a belief that the size of a person’s brain had a correlation with one’s intelligence, and there were a great number of estimates and speculation as to the weight of Napoleon’s brain. However, French officials refused the request of one of Napoleon’s physicians at the autopsy to open Napoleon’s head surgically and it was left intact—although almost bald from the amount of hair Napoleon had sent to his family and friends as mementos.

5. Can mice throw up? (1949)

Barry Blitt/St. Martin’s Publishing Group

A study titled “Why Can’t Rodents Vomit? A Comparative Behavioral, Anatomical, and Physiological Study,” published in 2013 in PLOS One, concluded that they cannot and that “absent brainstem neurological component is the most likely cause.” Their brains are just not wired for this action.

6. What kind of apple did Eve eat? (1956)

The Bible fails to identify the varietal type of fruit, noting only that it was “seeded.” (It is depicted as a pomegranate and not an apple in all early representations.) The actual type of apple, however, is irrelevant to understanding the parable. The fruit symbolized the knowledge of good and evil. In this librarian’s opinion, that sounds sinfully delicious.

7. What is the life cycle of an eyebrow hair? (1948)

There are three phases in the life of an eyebrow hair: Anagen (growth), Catagen (resting or intermediate), and Telogen (shedding), with the average life span being about four months. According to the Bosley Hair Transplant Company, the average person has 250 to 500 hairs per eyebrow. The older you get, the longer it takes to grow eyebrow hair.

8. What did women use for shopping bags before paper bags came into use? (n.d.)

Barry Blitt/St. Martin’s Publishing Group

The paper bag was invented in 1852, the handled shopping bag in 1912. Plastic shopping bags rose to prominence in the 1960s before achieving worldwide shopping domination by the early 1980s. Prior to the common use of a common bag, women—and men for that matter—used their hands and arms and any other vessel at their disposal to carry as much as they possibly could. The paper bag was actually invented so that shoppers could purchase more at one time!

9. What is the nutritional value of human flesh? (1958)

Hannibal Lecter would truly have to be a serial killer—if he intended to live solely from human flesh. The human body is edible and there have been documented instances of human cannibalism for thousands of years and across many cultures. And human flesh has been used as one form of nutrition from Paleolithic times to those desperate for food in twentieth-century concentration camps and among survivors of disasters in remote areas.

However, according to one recent study of “nutritional human cannibalism” during the Paleolithic (when there was no evidence cannibalism was practiced for a spiritual or ritual purpose) the human body is not an optimal resource in terms of the sheer number of calories that it provides when compared to other sources of meat. The study estimates that, if consumed, a human body would provide an average of 125,000 to 144,000 calories. This means that the meat on one human’s body could have provided a group of twenty-five modern adult males with enough calories to survive for only about half a day. In contrast, that same tribe during Paleolithic times could have feasted on a mammoth that, with 3.6 million calories, would have provided enough sustenance for sixty days. Even a steppe bison would offer 612,000 calories, which is enough for ten days of nourishment.

The study suggests that because humans offered such a comparatively low amount of calories that some examples of Paleolithic cannibalism that had been interpreted as “nutritional” may have occurred for social or cultural reasons.

10. Who was the real Dracula? (1972)

For an answer to this question look no further than Bram Stoker’s Notes and Outlines for Dracula that are held in the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. In her book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense, Elizabeth Miller writes that Stoker got the idea for the name Dracula from the book An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Maldovia by William Wilkinson that the author borrowed from the Whitby Public Library. In his notes he wrote “Dracula in the Wallachian language means devil.”

11. Why do 18th-century English paintings have so many squirrels in them, and how did they tame them so that they wouldn’t bite the painter? (1976)

For upper-class families of the 1700s, squirrels were very popular pets. Children truly enjoyed these fluffy devil-may-care rodents so naturally they made their way into portraits and paintings of the time. In most cases, however, the painter would use a reference from books on nature and animals rather than live squirrels, thus bypassing the need to tame them to sit still and pose!

From Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers: A Little Book of Whimsy and Wisdom from the Files of The New York Public Library by The New York Public Library and illustrated by Barry Blitt. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

8 Great Gifts for People Who Work From Home

World Market/Amazon
World Market/Amazon

A growing share of Americans work from home, and while that might seem blissful to some, it's not always easy to live, eat, and work in the same space. So, if you have co-workers and friends who are living the WFH lifestyle, here are some products that will make their life away from their cubicle a little easier.

1. Folding Book Stand; $7

Hatisan / Amazon

Useful for anyone who works with books or documents, this thick wire frame is strong enough for heavier textbooks or tablets. Best of all, it folds down flat, so they can slip it into their backpack or laptop case and take it out at the library or wherever they need it. The stand does double-duty in the kitchen as a cookbook holder, too.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Duraflame Electric Fireplace; $179

Duraflame / Amazon

Nothing says cozy like a fireplace, but not everyone is so blessed—or has the energy to keep a fire going during the work day. This Duraflame electric fireplace can help keep a workspace warm by providing up to 1000 square feet of comfortable heat, and has adjustable brightness and speed settings. They can even operate it without heat if they just crave the ambiance of an old-school gentleman's study (leather-top desk and shelves full of arcane books cost extra).

Buy It: Amazon

3. World Explorer Coffee Sampler; $32

UncommonGoods

Making sure they've got enough coffee to match their workload is a must, and if they're willing to experiment with their java a bit, the World Explorer’s Coffee Sampler allows them to make up to 32 cups using beans from all over the world. Inside the box are four bags with four different flavor profiles, like balanced, a light-medium roast with fruity notes; bold, a medium-dark roast with notes of cocoa; classic, which has notes of nuts; and fruity, coming in with notes of floral.

Buy it: UncommonGoods

4. Lavender and Lemon Beeswax Candle; $20

Amazon

People who work at home all day, especially in a smaller space, often struggle to "turn off" at the end of the day. One way to unwind and signal that work is done is to light a candle. Burning beeswax candles helps clean the air, and essential oils are a better health bet than artificial fragrances. Lavender is especially relaxing. (Just use caution around essential-oil-scented products and pets.)

Buy It: Amazon

5. HÄNS Swipe-Clean; $15

HÄNS / Amazon

If they're carting their laptop and phone from the coffee shop to meetings to the co-working space, the gadgets are going to get gross—fast. HÄNS Swipe is a dual-sided device that cleans on one side and polishes on the other, and it's a great solution for keeping germs at bay. It's also nicely portable, since there's nothing to spill. Plus, it's refillable, and the polishing cloth is washable and re-wrappable, making it a much more sustainable solution than individually wrapped wipes.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Laptop Side Table; $100

World Market

Sometimes they don't want to be stuck at a desk all day long. This industrial-chic side table can act as a laptop table, too, with room for a computer, coffee, notes, and more. It also works as a TV table—not that they would ever watch TV during work hours.

Buy It: World Market

7. Moleskine Classic Notebook; $17

Moleskin / Amazon

Plenty of people who work from home (well, plenty of people in general) find paper journals and planners essential, whether they're used for bullet journaling, time-blocking, or just writing good old-fashioned to-do lists. However they organize their lives, there's a journal out there that's perfect, but for starters it's hard to top a good Moleskin. These are available dotted (the bullet journal fave), plain, ruled, or squared, and in a variety of colors. (They can find other supply ideas for bullet journaling here.)

Buy It: Amazon

8. Nexstand Laptop Stand; $39

Nexstand / Amazon

For the person who works from home and is on the taller side, this portable laptop stand is a back-saver. It folds down flat so it can be tossed into the bag and taken to the coffee shop or co-working spot, where it often generates an admiring comment or three. It works best alongside a portable external keyboard and mouse.

Buy It: Amazon

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Meet Your Home's Microbes in The Great Indoors

Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash
Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash

This year, you’ve probably been spending more time than you ever expected at home. You might be sharing space with family members, roommates, pets—and an entire universe of microbes. In The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness, science journalist Emily Anthes investigates homes, offices, schools, hospitals, and other places where we live, work, and play. She looks at how the design of our surroundings affects major aspects of our lives, even when we don’t realize it. In this excerpt, she explores the thriving communities of bacteria and fungi with which we share our abodes—and what they reveal about us.

In 2010, microbiologist Noah Fierer made his first foray into the indoor microbial world, cataloging the bacteria present in 12 public restrooms at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he teaches. (Among the findings: The floor and the toilet handles were home to similar kinds of bacteria, suggesting that some bathroom-goers were flushing the toilet with their feet—“a practice well known to germaphobes and those who have had the misfortune of using restrooms that are less than sanitary,” Fierer and his colleagues reported.) The following year, he studied the microbes in residential kitchens and partnered with Rob Dunn to launch the Wild Life of Our Homes project. They began with a small pilot study in North Carolina, recruiting 40 families to run cotton swabs across seven surfaces inside their homes: a countertop, a cutting board, a refrigerator shelf, a pillowcase, a toilet seat, a TV screen, and the trim around an interior doorway.

The homes were crawling with microbial squatters—more than two thousand types, on average. Different locations within the homes formed distinct habitats: kitchens harbored bacteria associated with food, while doorways were covered in species that typically live in leaves and soil. From a microbiological perspective, toilet seats and pillowcases looked strikingly similar; both were dominated by bacteria that typically live on our skin and in our mouths.

Beyond these commonalities, there was a lot of variation among the homes, each of which had its own microbial profile, sheltering a slightly different collection of organisms. But the researchers couldn’t explain why. So Fierer and Dunn launched a second study, asking more than one thousand families living across the United States to swab the dust that had collected on the trim around their interior doorways.

“We focused on that because nobody ever cleans it,” Fierer told me. “Or we don’t clean it very often—maybe you’re an exception.” (I am not.) Because the dust collects over months or years, the duo hoped it would give them the broadest possible look at indoor life, an inventory of the organisms that had floated, crawled, and skittered through the homes over the previous months and years. As Dunn put it: “Each bit of dust is a microhistory of your life.”

Back in the lab, the team analyzed the DNA fragments present in each dust sample, listing every organism that made an appearance. The numbers were staggering. In total, the indoor dust contained DNA from more than 116,000 species of bacteria and 63,000 species of fungi. “The shocker was the diversity of fungi,” Dunn told me. There are fewer than 25,000 species of named fungi in all of North America, which means that our houses could be teeming with organisms that are essentially unknown to science. In fact, when the researchers compared the indoor dust to samples that the volunteers had taken from the trim around an exterior door, they found that there was more microbial diversity inside the homes than outside of them.

Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Some of the species that Fierer and Dunn identified originate outside, hitching rides into our homes on our clothes or drifting in through open windows. (And they may not all be alive by the time they turn up inside; DNA sequencing can identify the organisms that are present in a sample, but it can’t distinguish between living creatures and dead ones.) Other kinds of bacteria actually grow in our homes—in our walls and our pipes, our air conditioning units, and our dishwashers. Some sprout on our houseplants or our food.

And a lot of indoor microbes, it turns out, are living on us. “We’re constantly shedding bacteria from every orifice and body part,” Fierer said. “It’s nothing to be grossed out about. It’s just the way it is.” Our individual microbiomes—the collection of microorganisms that live in and on our bodies—are unique, and we each leave our own microbial signatures on the places we inhabit. In one innovative study, re- searchers tracked three families as they moved into new homes; each family’s distinct blend of microbes colonized its new residence within hours. The scientists—led by Jack Gilbert, a microbial ecologist then at the University of Chicago—could even detect the individual microbial contributions of each family member. “People who spent more time in the kitchen, their microbiome dominated that space,” Gilbert explained. “People who spent more time in the bedroom, their microbiome dominated there. You could start to forensically identify their movement.”

Indeed, the bacteria that turn up inside a home depend enormously on who lives there. Fierer and Dunn found that Lactobacil­lus bacteria, which are a major component of the vaginal microbiome, were most abundant in homes in which women outnumbered men. When men were in the majority, different bacteria thrived: Roseburia, which normally live in the gut, and Corynebacterium and Derma­bacter, which both populate the skin. Corynebacterium is known to occupy the armpit and contribute to body odor. “Maybe it means that men’s houses smell more like armpits,” Dunn ventured. “Microbially, that’s a fair assessment.” The findings may be due to sex differences in skin biology; men tend to have more Corynebacterium on their skin— and to shed more skin microbes into the environment—than women do. (The researchers also acknowledge the possibility that a bachelor pad’s bacterial profile could be the result of “hygiene practices.”) In a subsequent study, Fierer and his colleagues showed that they could accurately predict the sex of the students living in a college dorm room simply by analyzing the bacteria in its dust.

Meanwhile, dogs introduce their own drool and fecal microbes into a home and track soil dwellers in from outside. (Dog owners never seem too bothered when Dunn tells them that Fido is smuggling an entire microbial zoo into their homes. “It’s a pretty fine conversation most of the time,” he told me. On the other hand, he noted, “If I say that every time your neighbor comes over, that he brings over a mix of beneficial microbes and pathogens, it just makes people scrub.”) Cats change a home’s microbial makeup more modestly, perhaps because they are smaller and venture outside less often. Using the dust DNA alone, Fierer and Dunn were able to predict whether a home contained a dog or a cat with roughly 80 to 90 percent accuracy.

While the bacteria in our homes mostly comes from us (and our pets), the fungi are another story. Fungi are much less abundant in our own microbiomes, and our houses are dominated by fungal species that originate outdoors. A home’s fungal signature, Fierer and Dunn found, was largely determined by where it was located. Houses in eastern states had different fungal communities than those in western ones. Ditto homes in humid climates compared with those in dry ones. The geographic correlation was so strong that Fierer and Dunn could use fungal DNA to determine, to within about 150 miles, where a house dust sample originated.

Fierer and Dunn did identify more than 700 kinds of fungi that were more common indoors than out, including a variety of household molds, yeasts, edible mushrooms, and fungi that live on human skin. Homes with basements had different fungi than those without them. And because some species of fungi feed on wood and other building materials, what our homes are made of affects the fungi that live there. “It’s kind of a ‘three pigs’ thing,” Dunn told me. “A stone house feeds different fungi from a wood house from a mud house. Because unlike the bacteria, they’re eating the house.”

 

Some of the microbes that inhabit our homes are known to cause disease. Black mold, which grows in and on our walls, can trigger allergies and respiratory problems. Aspergillus fumigatus, a fungus that can cause lung infections in people with weakened immune systems, lives in our pillows. Legionella pneumophila, a bacterium that causes Legionnaires’ disease, loves indoor plumbing. It nestles inside hot water tanks, cooling towers, and faucets, and spreads through airborne, or aerosolized, droplets of water. Streptococcus bacteria—which can cause strep throat, sinus and ear infections, pinkeye, meningitis, and pneumonia—are more abundant inside our homes than outside them, Fierer and Dunn found. Though the mere presence of these microbes isn’t necessarily dangerous, and not all strains cause illness, buildings can provide an infrastructure that helps diseases spread. Airborne influenza can waft through an office building’s ventilation system; a spray of Strepto­coccus can turn a doorknob into a booby trap.

But many indoor microbes are completely innocuous, and some may even have lifelong health benefits. In recent decades, the rates of asthma, allergies, and autoimmune diseases have skyrocketed in industrialized nations. Some scientists have theorized that the increasing prevalence of these diseases may be the fault of our modern lifestyles, which keep us at a distance from the robust microbial menageries that surrounded our ancestors for most of human evolution. As a result, our immune systems never get properly trained.

Evidence has been accumulating to support this theory. Studies show that children who live with dogs, which increase the richness and diversity of bacteria in a home, are less sensitive to allergens and less likely to develop asthma. (A dog might be the immune system’s best friend.) Children who grow up on farms, and are exposed to livestock and their microbes, appear to be similarly protected from allergies and asthma.

Some of the most compelling evidence comes from research on two American farming communities: the Amish and the Hutterites. Although the groups have much in common—including large families and Central European ancestry—just 5 percent of Amish kids have asthma, compared to 21 percent of Hutterite children. The communities also have distinct farming customs. The Amish, who generally eschew electricity, live on single-family farms and employ traditional agricultural methods, using horses to plow their fields. It’s not uncommon for Amish children to play in the family barns, which are typically located near their homes. The Hutterites, on the other hand, live together on big, industrial farms, complete with high-tech tools and equipment, and their children have less contact with livestock.

These differences may affect the children’s microbial exposures and the development of their immune systems. In 2016, scientists reported that house dust collected from Amish households had higher levels of endotoxins—molecules contained in the cellular membranes of some bacteria—than dust from Hutterite homes. What’s more, when they drew blood from kids in both communities, they found that compared to Hutterite children, Amish children had more neutrophils, white blood cells that help the body fight infection, and fewer eosinophils, which play a critical role in allergic reactions.

The researchers also whipped up some house-dust cocktails, mixing dust samples from Amish and Hutterite homes with water, and then shooting the slurries into the nasal passages of young mice. Then they exposed the mice to allergens. The mice that had received the Hutterite dust responded as expected; their airways trembled and twitched. But the mice that had received the Amish dust continued to breathe relatively freely, seemingly protected from this allergic response.

Although there’s still a lot to learn, the science suggests that a healthy home is one that’s full of uninvited guests. “We are exposed to microbes every day, and a lot of these are harmless or potentially beneficial,” Fierer told me. “We don’t want a sterile house.” Which is good, because it turns out that I don’t have one.