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22 Cool Facts About Things You Use Every Day

You probably don't give them much thought. But maybe it's time to start, because these everyday essentials have surprisingly fascinating histories.

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woodworkers master handyman dad giving new toolkit to son surprisedDeagreez/Getty Images

Who Knew?!

Our lives are filled with mundane items — things we use to groom ourselves, create things, get from place to place, and keep ourselves entertained, informed, and rested. But behind this stuff that we pay little mind to are some really cool facts and flat-out strange stories. Once you know this surprising trivia, check out these amazing facts about the boring objects in your home.

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Stack of pillows on bed

Pillows

Sure, now most of us choose a fluffy or firm fabric rectangle stuffed with feathers or cotton to rest our heads on when it’s time for slumber. But in many ancient cultures, pillows were tall pedestals made of wood, stone, or ceramic. Comfort wasn’t their objective, according to Michael Acton Smith in The Magic of Sleep — keeping bugs out of your mouth was.

Pillows of the extremely firm variety were also once thought to impart brain- and spirit-related benefits. For example, three millennia ago, the Chinese believed jade pillows would boost intelligence. And Egyptians believed that you might be visited by evil spirits as you dreamed, so pillows of marble and ivory were intricately carved with protective images of the gods. For an arguably more restful sleep (and fluffier pillows), try these tricks that will keep your pillows from getting misshapen.

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rulers tape measure yard stickTammy Jones/Getty Images

Rulers

We take it for granted that we can grab a ruler and know, in an instant, how many inches, feet or centimeters an object is. But long ago, people used parts of their bodies to guesstimate how long or wide something was — like a foot, get it? When folks wanted to standardize measurements, they first had to decide on a metric. Hence, says Survey History, a ruler that used as its base one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole — a.k.a. one meter. While no one would dispute the usefulness of rulers, check out these crazy helpful US inventions from DIYers, for DIYers.

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One sharpened pencil standing out from the other pencil

Pencils

You’d think they were made obsolete by the advent of the computer, but pencils are having a heyday. As CBS 4 Miami reported in 2017, pencil maker Faber-Castell had its best year of sales in 2016, and imports of pencils into the United States increased 40 percent between 2015 and 2016. The reason? Experts posit that we really just love to do things by hand, and pencils are the perfect vehicle.

So who do we have to thank for this great invention? According to Popular Mechanics, the pencil — from the Latin pencillum, translated as “fine brush” — was born in the 16th century when a trove of graphite was discovered under a felled tree in England. It earned the moniker “black lead,” was cut into slivers, wrapped in string, and sold on the street. (Another cool fact: That graphite was also used to make cannonballs.) The most beloved feature of those early pencils? No spilled ink. Plus, why you need these pencils in your workshop.

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Toothbrushes on empty orange background

Toothbrushes

Before we had bristles for de-gunking our chompers, humans chewed on a variety of twigs —like neem— to get their mouths minty-fresh. But in the 1400s someone in China came up with the brilliant idea of attaching stiff boar bristles to a bamboo handle and, voilà, the modern toothbrush was born. Science Illustrated points out that we didn’t stop using boar bristles until 1938, when Dr. West’s Miracle Toothbrush introduced nylon bristles for the first (and everlasting) time.

But the activity you’ve been performing at least twice a day since you first grew teeth gets complicated in space. Although the same old bristled toothbrush is the norm up there, astronauts often use toothpaste that comes in tubes with non-detachable caps to keep them from floating around the craft. Because of zero gravity, everything from the toothbrush to the drink bag has to be bungeed or Velcroed to a surface. With nowhere to spit out, though, some astronauts resort to swallowing the paste, reports The Atlantic. Check out these unique uses for toothbrushes and floss at home.

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Empty parking lots, aerial view.

Cars

Sustainability is a buzzword everywhere these days, and many people are talking about the need to scale back on auto emissions. Engineers of the 1960s were already thinking small, with tiny vehicles like the three-wheeled Peel P50, which was once certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest car made. At 54 inches and 130 pounds, it proved that small could be…very small. Sadly, reports of its miles-to-the-gallon have been lost to time. If you’re in the market for a new car, check out these vehicles that maintain value.

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soap bar on white bath towel, blue background

Soap

Maybe you reach for a bar of inexpensive drugstore soap when you hop in the shower. Perhaps you prefer to suds up with something that’s a bit more of a splurge. If you had money to wash down the drain — literally — you could buy a bar of the world’s most expensive soap. As the BBC reported in 2014, it’s manufactured in Lebanon and costs a whopping $2,800. Why? It’s infused with powdered gold and diamonds. Check out these mesmerizing photos that show how exactly soap is recycled.

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Washing of hands with soap under running water

Liquid Soap

While early liquid soaps like Palmolive — named for the palm and olive oil it’s made of — contained ingredients similar to bar soap, today’s liquid bath and body cleansers eschew the oil and use petroleum as their base, according to Soap History. They also contain a slew of lathering and cleansing chemicals meant to be easy on the skin. Of course, not all inventions go according to plan. Plus, learn what gives Dawn dish soap its super powers.

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Pink eraser shot up close against a white background

Erasers

It took some 200 years for us to discover a rubber eraser removes errant pencil marks. This first happened by accident, when an 18th-century British engineer mistakenly picked up a blob of the stuff and rubbed it over the surface of his paper. What did he think he was using, according to The Atlantic? A slice of bread. That’s right — a crustless, damp ball of bread was the preferred method of erasing pencil marks for hundreds of years. Check out these other inventions we’re grateful for.

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Empty Electric Blender On Modern Kitchen Worktop

Blenders

Sure, you can toss a banana in there with some yogurt and juice and maybe some protein powder to make a smoothie. When you’re done, though, Apartment Therapy recommends using the blender for another purpose: making silver polish by using the leftover banana peels. Adding just a little water and giving a good, solid whir apparently yields a tarnish-removing paste that will dazzle your dinner guests. Feel free to dazzle them even further with this cool fact about your cleaning DIY. And an FYI: Here’s how to clean a blender in 30 seconds.

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Healthy fashion food of breakfast. Toast in a toaster on a pink background.

Toasters

Americans like toast — a lot. In fact, 75 million of us apparently eat toast every single day. But it took a while for this appliance to take off after its invention in 1905 (back when it was named El Tosto, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). The reason? Pre-sliced bread didn’t come along until 1933. Plus, clear out the clutter — and make your kitchen more functional — with these multi-use kitchen gadgets.

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Blue jeans zipper closeup.

Zippers

Another accident in the history of stuff was the naming of this mundane item that keeps your pants up and your purse closed. Canada’s CBC explains that the zipper was initially called the Hookless Fastener. But when B.F. Goodrich added Fasteners to a line of their boots in 1923, folks started calling them zippers because of the sound they made when they, well, zipped them up.

And while zippers may seem boring and oh-so-obviously necessary today, in their early years some people considered them a symbol of moral turpitude. Zippers were used for closing up bags of tobacco, and American prudes also complained they made taking off your pants way too easy. (Like that’s a bad thing!) If you have a zipper that’s broken, check out these brilliant ways to fix a zipper.

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Multicolor vitamins and supplements on bright paper background. Concept for a healthy dietary supplementation. Top view. Copy space.

Vitamins

The history of the pills we take for wellness is long and complicated, but here’s a cool fact that’s surprisingly simple: It starts with the alphabet. In the early 20th century, scientists were just discovering so-called deficiency diseases. In determining what “vitamines” led to these deficiencies, those scientists named them in the order they discovered them — A, B, C, D and so forth. Why do we have so many Bs? It took us a while to discover overlaps in their properties and reclassify them, according to Gizmodo.

Once upon a time, any snake-oil salesman could pass off vitamin-free health supplements to a gullible public…and sometimes they still do. Regulation happened slowly over decades; the FDA didn’t even open a lab in order to study vitamins until 1931. But Gizmodo points out we now understand enough about the link between vitamins and health to learn 75 percent of American kids are vitamin D deficient, 30 percent of the world population is iron deficient, and 80 percent of American girls are calcium deficient. Here’s why you should never buy vitamins from a dollar store.

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camera phonehurricanehank/Shutterstock

Camera Phones

We don’t have Bill Gates to thank for this techy invention. Its origins go back to the 1990s, when NASA developed the technology to give astronauts a low-energy, high-res way to take images of space from space, says USA Today. Have you ever dropped your phone in the toilet? There’s a cure for that!

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Woman with handheld vacuum cleaning on sofa; Shutterstock ID 511880752

Dustbusters

A similar origin story applies to the Dustbuster, which NASA developed with Black & Decker all the way back during the Apollo missions in the 1960s and ’70s. But this gizmo wasn’t intended to help astronauts keep a tidy ship — it was meant to let them vacuum up rock samples in space. These are the things you should never, ever vacuum.

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set for nail polish on white table background top view mock up

Nail Polish

The next time you’re inclined to complain about the cost of a mani-pedi at your local salon, consider that thousands of years ago, ancient Babylonians — men, and warriors at that — had their nails done with solid gold tools. Their color choice (black) was meant to instill fear in their enemies in battle, notes Mental Floss.

Ancient Egyptians, however, used nail polish as a way to signal their societal ranking, according to Good Housekeeping. Lower classes were stuck with nude and light-colored shades, while the wealthy and important availed themselves of the now-classic red. Nefertiti was apparently a fan of ruby tones.

And while the first nail polishes were made of egg whites and other all-natural pantry items, today’s lacquers have a somewhat less wholesome origin: paint for automobiles. Mental Floss reveals that a makeup artist in the 1920s who worked for the company now known as Revlon adapted the car paint to develop a colorless enamel that was apparently a hit with flappers. Check out these clever uses for nail polish and nail polish remover for around your home.

Originally Published on Reader's Digest