Robert Fulford's column about the history of common objects

(The National Post, February 6, 2001)

It's been centuries since anyone seriously claimed that mirrors were tools of the Devil, but for a long time they had a really bad press. As Sabine Melchior-Bonnet points out in The Mirror: A History (Routledge), medieval Europe routinely connected mirrors with witchcraft. In the 14th century, when a certain Frenchwoman received a life sentence for casting spells, the indictment listed a mirror among wicked objects in her possession. Johann Agricola, a 16th-century German Protestant minister, declared that women obtain their greatest joy by adorning themselves and always act "under the influence of the mirror." A 17th-century Jesuit, Nicolas Caussin, warned women they would be punished by God if they spent too much time looking in the mirror. An 18th-century French playwright said that a good woman rarely uses a mirror. If she chances to look into one, she blushes.

Melchior-Bonnet's charming little book, translated from the French, fits into a trend: the literary and historical investigation of common objects. Henry Petroski's 1990 book, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, helped create this tendency. Michael Dirda, in the Washington Post, said that Petroski "inaugurated our current vogue for sprightly accounts of various obsessive historical enterprises." Later books follow Petroski's formula: startle your readers by overstating the significance of your subject, then calm them with history and charm them with anecdotes.

Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World appeared in 1997, and Larry Zuckerman's The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World came out in 1998. Last year brought two similar titles -- Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour that Changed the World, by Simon Garfield, and Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible, by Joseph A. Amato.

Melchior-Bonnet, whose book on mirrors appears next week, doesn't quite claim her subject is earth-shaking, but Jean Delumeau, in the preface, says the development of mirrors has "marked out the course of our civilization." Melchior-Bonnet's account, while always engaging, suffers from parochialism. As a historian, she's a French provincial. When she reaches for an example, it's almost always French. She briefly slips over to Italy for the Renaissance and quotes some German poetry, but the rest of the world barely exists. Apparently Asians and Africans entirely lack mirrors and North America is a mirrorless wilderness. (My guess is that when the original edition appeared in Paris, not one reviewer noticed this point -- but perhaps that reflects bias on my part.)

Melchior-Bonnet, previously the author of books on Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Bourbon, has an unfortunately limited view of history. By "history" she means the past, and not the recent past. She stops dead just as the 20th century gets going, so she not only misses Picasso's mirror pictures and much other art, she also ignores the movies, including the shattered mirrors in film noir and the several generations of fortysomething heroines staring bleakly at lined faces, in scenes that surely had a powerful and malign influence on the world's ideas about beauty.

Petroski, the pencil expert, is an engineering professor with a favourite subject, the "extraordinariness of everyday things," and a mission. He wants us to understand that engineering encompasses not only supercomputers and cantilevered bridges but also zippers, paper clips, and Post-It notes. He thinks we should know that similar principles govern the grandest projects and the humblest products.

He brings limitless curiosity to pencils. He wondered why, of the 14 billion pencils the world uses every year, about three-quarters are yellow. He discovered that in the 19th century, when European pencil makers began using graphite from the Far East, they painted the wood on their pencils yellow because the public associated that colour with Asia; they also gave them Oriental-sounding names such as Koh-I-Noor, Mikado and Mongol (the Mikado was hastily renamed the day after Pearl Harbor).

Simon Garfield, in Mauve, revives the once-great reputation of Sir William Henry Perkin (1838-1907), the English chemist who in 1856 discovered the first aniline dye, called aniline purple and now known as mauve. His dye-producing company made his fortune and changed the colour sense of the Western world. More important, Garfield argues, Perkin's use of coal tar as the source of his dyes soon led to crucial new applications in medicine, perfume, food, photography and printing. In his lifetime, he was acknowledged as a genius. In 1906, a dinner at Delmonico's in New York celebrated the 50th anniversary of his invention. He looked out from the dais at 400 men in formal clothes, most of them chemists, every one of them wearing a mauve necktie.

Amato, the author of Dust, loves the idea of "nanotechnology" and argues that we are living through "a revolution of the minuscule," high-powered microscopes having opened the world of the tiny and "declared the infinity of the infinitesimal." He's written a fine, friendly book, always readable, sometimes personal. It includes a portrait of his mother, an articulate and thoughtful woman, "committed to a daily and lifelong war against dust and dirt" and able to recall in detail the kind of dust she and her ancestors fought at each stage in their lives.

Even the least of these books is charming and evocative, but they all have a striking drawback. To understand it, consider an article on the editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, in New York magazine a couple of months ago. Carter, being interviewed at Da Silvano restaurant, said: "Love the cod here." And then: "There's a book that came out about how cod changed the world. Cod is more responsible for the discovery of the New World than almost anything else. Drove the Vikings across the North Atlantic, and John Cabot discovered America by looking for cod. The stirrup! The stirrup was a huge thing; people could engage in battle properly on horseback ..."

There's the problem: These theories are more likely to make you think about other theories than about reality. Carter's mind, glancing across cod, leapt to something he'd read about the stirrup changing warfare. Historians often make that point, but so far as I know we are still awaiting a book called Stirrup: How a Foot Support Made Cavalry Warfare Possible and Created the Modern World. As things are going, however, we won't have to wait long.

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