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My New Book!

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

January 4, 2023: 2023 Anniversaries: 1873 Inventions

[As I’ve done for the last few years, I wanted to start the New Year by looking back on some prior years that we can commemorate as anniversaries. Leading up to a weekend post with some 2023 predictions!]

On three influential things created in 1873.

1)      Levi’s blue jeans: I wrote at length in that hyperlinked post about the backstories that brought together Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis, the two men listed on the 1873 patent application for cotton denim pants reinforced with copper rivets (known initially as blue jeans and then eventually as Levi’s). I’m not sure any 19th century invention has become more synonymous with core elements of the American myth, nor more a part of each and every one of our lives (he wrote with his laptop resting on his blue jeaned legs).

2)      Barbed wire: But of course that was far from the only patent application filed in 1873, nor was it the one that most immediately and potently reshaped the American West. That honor would have to go to barbed wire, which was first exhibited by farmer Henry Rose at the De Kalb (Illinois) County Fair in May 1873 and then patented by another farmer, Joseph Glidden, in October. I’m sure if barbed wire hadn’t been invented something else would have come along to profoundly reshape (literally and figuratively) the landscapes of the West and all of the United States—but it was barbed wire that did so most consistently and controversially. Not nearly as comfortable as blue jeans, but that’s a pretty telling duality to be sure.

3)      The Comstock Act: A law isn’t technically an invention, but I would argue that the Comstock Act qualifies in at least two ways: it was almost entirely the creation of one man (Anthony Comstock, director of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice); and to a significant degree it did in fact invent, or at least far more overtly define, a new legal category, obscenity. Of course the obscene had been part of human society since the first caveman drew the first penis on the cave wall; but at least in the United States, the Comstock Act represented the first sustained effort to both define and legislate obscenity (and arrest countless individuals for violating these laws). As divisive and destructive as barbed wire was, I’d argue that Anthony Comstock and the Comstock Act had a far more pervasive and punitive influence on American culture.

Next anniversary tomorrow,


PS.  What do you think?  

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