• In warm climates in parts of Asia and the Mediterranean region, a shrubby weed-like plant grows in loamy river bottoms near water. It’s a perennial plant, meaning it comes back every year, and it has purple flowers. It’s a legume, meaning it’s related to beans and peas. But the unique part of this plant is its roots, which are sweet.
• Because of the sweet properties of the roots, the Greeks named the shrub Glycyrrhiza from their words “glukos” meaning “sweet” (from which we get the word “glucose”) and “riza” meaning “root” (which also gives us the word “rhizome”). The Greek name evolved as it passed into French and then into English to become the word we use today: licorice.
• Classified as a weed, licorice is one of the most popular herbs in the world. It is about four feet tall with purplish flowers. Spain is the top producer of licorice, but it’s also produced abundantly in countries such as India, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, and China.
• The roots are tan or brown, but when boiled and condensed, the resulting syrup is black, and fifty times sweeter than sugar, with a very unique taste. The syrup has medicinal qualities and has historically been used as a cough syrup, a laxative, and a topical anti-viral. It soothes ulcers and digestive ills. King Tut had a supply in his tomb and Napoleon used it so much it turned his teeth black.
• Today it’s used medicinally as lozenges and cough drops, and is reputedly useful in fighting bronchitis, upper respiratory congestion, and heartburn. It helps stimulate mucus production and loosens sticky phlegm. It also contains a chemical that has anti-inflammatory properties.
• Carbenoxolone, a compound derived from licorice root, has been used to help healing of peptic ulcers. The disadvantage of this compound is that in about one-third of patients, it raises blood pressure, increases fluid retention, and promotes potassium loss.
• The primary use of licorice, surprisingly, is in tobacco. Licorice lends a natural sweetness and distinctive flavor to tobacco while also moisturizing the product. It also acts as a bronchodilator, which opens the lungs. It’s used in most cigarettes, pipe tobacco, snuff, and chewing tobacco. It’s estimated that about 90% of the world’s licorice supply ends up in tobacco.
• Licorice is used by brewers to add flavor and color to porter classes of beers, and the enzymes in the root also stabilize the foam heads produced by beers brewed with it.
• Thanks to foaming properties of this plant, root of licorice is used in the manufacture of foam for the fire extinguishers.
• Licorice, anise, and fennel share one common flavor component, anethole. All three plants share a similar taste and smell because of the anethole they contain, but they are unrelated species. Anethole is also found in basil, camphor, and tarragon. The main flavor ingredient in many types of licorice candy is actually anise.
• In the 1925 film “The Gold Rush” Charlie Chaplin plays a starving miner who boils and eats his shoe for Christmas dinner. The realistic-looking boiled boot was actually made of licorice. It required so many takes to get the scene done that Chaplin reportedly had to be taken to the hospital to be treated for indigestion after the scene was done.
• Following the success of the Barbie doll, the Mattel Company released a number of companion dolls: Ken, Skipper, and Midge. In 2002, the new version of Midge was pregnant. Pull up her maternity dress to find a pregnant magnetic belly. Snap the belly off the doll to reveal a tiny baby curled up inside Midge’s womb. The controversial doll was pulled from shelves—mostly due to the fact that Midge was not depicted as wearing a wedding ring.
• In 2002 Mattel also released the Whats-Her-Face doll: a Barbie-size fashion doll with an absolutely blank face. A set of markers, ink stamps, removable masks, and Velcro wigs were provided so girls could create their own water-soluble face on the previously featureless doll.
• Another near-miss was Barbie’s dog, Tanner. Tanner was a plastic dog of the Old Yeller breed, perhaps lab or golden retriever. He came with his own box of treats. Feed a treat into his chomping mouth, then press his tail a few times, and Tanner would poop on the spot. Don’t worry! A poop-scooper and trash bin were thoughtfully provided by Mattel.
• Goliath Games is the mastermind behind Gooey Louie, the booger-picking challenge. Gooey Louie is a large plastic head with an oversize nose that’s loaded with long stretchy gel-like boogers. Kids take turns reaching into the nose to pull out a booger. Grab the wrong booger, and Louie’s eyes bug out, his head pops open, and his brain springs out.
• Hasbro followed up the success of their Super-Soaker power squirt guns with the Oozinator, which came with cartridges that turned the water into a white slime with the consistency of snot. Children had the choice of shooting regular water out of the top reservoir, or launching “bio-ooze” slime from the bottom reservoir.
• Tyco’s Magic Potty Baby was a doll that would “drink” from a bottle and then “pee” into a plastic potty with real flushing action when the lever was pushed. Released in 1992, it sold for $29.95 and was a smash hit. Tyco was sued by Ideal Toys, who had released the Betsy Wetsy doll years earlier. The difference between the two dolls is that Betsy Wetsy really did ingest water, which really did wet diapers, clothing, couches, and rugs, whereas the Magic Potty Baby just drank from a bottle that had the appearance of containing fluids that disappeared as the bottle was tipped up, and the potty likewise could be flipped over to make the level of the yellow-colored liquid contained inside it rise and fall. The judge in the lawsuit ruled that urination was not a patentable idea.
• Cashing in on the popularity of dolls that pee, a Spanish company released Baby Wee Wee, an anatomically correct battery-operated baby boy doll that could toddle, crawl, cry, drink real water, and then pee a stream into the provided potty-- either standing or sitting.
• If you prefer to clean up after a puppy rather than a doll, you could purchase Mayu the peeing dog, produced by a Japanese novelty company. Just dunk the dog’s rear end into the water bowl, then wind him up, and off he goes across the floor, leaving a watery trail behind him. We know Mayu was a male dog because he lifted his leg every time he left a puddle behind.
• Or you may prefer to have a plastic dog slobber all over you, as with the “Love ’N Licks” battery-operated pet. Press the dog’s paw and he barks. Rub his head and he wags his tail. Rub his belly and he slobbers water all over you from the reservoir underneath his plastic tongue. The harder you rub, the more he slobbers!
TIDBITS® PLAYS WITH
by Janet Spencer
Come along with Tidbits as we play with some dangerous toys!
A LITTLE CHEMISTRY
• The A.C. Gilbert toy company had a hit in 1913 when they invented the erector set. The company went on to release many educational toys such as microscopes and magic tricks. However, there were issues with several of their products. One was a chemistry set which offered 56 different chemicals. There was potassium nitrate (used in gunpowder); ammonium nitrate (used in bombs); nitric acid (used in rocket fuel); sulfuric acid (highly corrosive); and calcium hypochlorite (creates poisonous gas). A piece of safety advice, offered on the page with instructions for creating an explosion out of homemade gunpowder, was: “Do not try this on a bigger scale or a larger explosion will result.”
• The kits were intended to be used under adult supervision while strictly following the instructions but that didn’t always happen. Given the proclivity of kids to mix things up, such as adding sodium ferro-cyanide to iron ions to create poisonous cyanide, parents became concerned and A.C. Gilbert Corp. had to release chemistry sets with more mundane chemicals.
• Another of A.C. Gilbert’s bad ideas was the glassblowing kit. What could possibly go wrong when you hand a kid a blow torch and encourage them to heat a glob of glass to 1,000 F and then do a bunch of experiments with molten glass? No safety equipment was included in the kit, nor even suggested in the manual. The guidebook contained complete instructions on how to make glass straws, champagne glasses, window glass, and even beakers. “You’ll know the glass is hot when it’s glowing red.”
• If melting glass wasn’t dangerous enough, A.C. Gilbert also released the Kaster Kit with everything needed to melt metal to create die-cast figures. Kids melted lead in an electric crucible that reached temperatures up to 400 F and poured the molten metal into one of 32 different molds in order to create their own lead soldiers. The manual contained only a single piece of safety advice: “Don’t pour water into the molten metal.”
• Perhaps the very worst of A.C. Gilbert’s ideas was the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab. The kit included a Geiger counter that ran on three C-cell batteries, three types of uranium ore, a nuclear fission chamber, radium samples, polonium samples, and an electroscope. A form in the back of the manual allowed kids to send off for mail-order uranium refills, as well as instructions on how to search for uranium deposits where you lived. The kit also included a comic book called “Dagwood Splits the Atom” in which Dagwood and Blondie, along with Popeye, gave kids a crash course in atomic energy. Some of the experiments required kids to go out and purchase their own block of dry ice, which has a temperature of -109.3 F The U-238 Atomic Energy Lab was released in 1950 and removed from the market in 1951.
• Why not hand children a bunch of oversize pointy steel-tipped darts and then encourage those children to hurl said darts across the yard? That was the thinking of the inventor of the game called Jarts. A cross between darts and horseshoes, the force of a thrown Jart could reach up to 23,000 pounds of pressure per inch, more than needed to penetrate the skull. In an attempt to avoid pierced skulls, the packaging said, “For adults only” but after 6,100 injuries and three deaths in eight years, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned Jarts in 1988. Today you can find the revamped game, made with projectiles that have safely rounded plastic ends.
• In 2007, the Spin Master Company introduced Aqua Dots. Aqua Dots consisted of tiny colorful beads that could be assembled into different designs. Just add a few drops of water to activate the built-in glue, and the individual dots would fuse into solid shapes. It was named “Toy of the Year,” an honor that was rescinded when young children who had swallowed the beads became dizzy, nauseous, and comatose. The water-activated glue on Aqua Dots contained chemicals that metabolized into gamma-hydroxybutyrate, better known as the date rape drug GHB. The product was on the market for less than eight months before being recalled.
• The hot new toy in 2010 was called Colossal Water Balls. These gel-like balls were about the size of gumballs or marbles, but would expand to 400 times their size when soaked in water. Since they looked like candy, small children swallowed them. Colossal Water Balls then proceeded to swell to 400 times their size while inside the child’s intestinal tract, causing blockages that did not show up on X-rays and had to be surgically removed. They were removed from the market in 2012.
• When Cabbage Patch dolls were all the rage, the hot new version for the holiday season of 1996 was the Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kids doll. These dolls were built to mechanically chew and swallow plastic food provided, which would then magically appear in the plastic backpack worn by the doll. There were two basic problems with the design. First was that the chewing/swallowing mechanism was activated any time anything was placed inside the doll’s mouth, such as fingers or pony tails. There was no way the doll could differentiate between the approved plastic food and the tail of the family cat. The second problem was that once the doll started chowing down, there was no “on/off” switch and the only way to stop the chewing action was to find and remove the doll’s batteries. After many pinched fingers and a couple of kids nearly scalped, half a million Snacktime Cabbage Patch dolls were recalled in 1997.
• Kids love toy guns and in the 1940s the Austin Magic Pistol lived up to expectations even though the ammunition consisted of ping pong balls. The issue wasn’t the ammo used as much as it was the propellant that powered the ping pong balls. The instructions called for loading the ping pong balls into the muzzle of the pistol, and then sprinkling the “magic crystals” into a small screw-top container in the back of the gun. Next, just add a few drops of water, and then pull the trigger to see your ping pong ball launched up to 70 feet away. The problem was that the “magic crystals” were actually calcium carbide which reacts explosively with water to form poisonous and flammable acetylene gas. Not only did it launch the ping pong balls with a fiery muzzle blast, but the screw-top container in the rear often blew its top.
• Poison ivy causes an allergic reaction because the sap contains an oily substance called urushiol. Other plants that also contain urushiol include poison oak and poison sumac.
• The word “urushiol” comes from the Japanese word “urushi” meaning lacquer because the toxic sap can be refined to make a very durable and beautiful lacquer.
• You’d think that poison ivy contains urushiol as a defensive measure, but in fact the substance merely helps the plant retain water and it just so happens that it’s also an allergen.
• You cannot get a rash from simply brushing against poison ivy; you must come into contact with the sap of the plant caused when leaves and stems are damaged, due to cutting the plant, picking the leaves, crushing the stems, and so forth.
• Urushiol enters the skin so quickly that a person has only ten minutes after exposure to wash it off in order to prevent a rash from forming. The rash usually shows up within 48 hours of exposure.
• It takes just a billionth of a gram of urushiol to cause a rash. A mere quarter ounce of the stuff would be enough to cause a rash on every person on Earth. And the amount that could fit on the head of a pin would be enough to cause a rash on 500 people.
• About 85% of people are allergic to urushiol. Exposure to urushiol causes more cases of dermatitis than is caused by all other plant species combined.
• Often people will fail to develop a rash after their first exposure to poison ivy, through the rash tends to grow progressively worse with each successive exposure.
• It’s found throughout North America and Asia though it does not grow well in arid regions or high altitudes.
• Although poison ivy usually has three leaves, its appearance can vary widely. Eastern poison ivy is a rope-like vine while western poison ivy is a shrubby bush. The vine can cover the ground or it can climb tree trunks and fences. The foliage changes appearance as the seasons change, starting reddish in the spring, green in the summer, yellow and orange in fall.
• Despite its name, poison ivy is not a true ivy. True ivy is in the genus called “Hedera.” Poison ivy is in the genus “Toxicodendron” which is Latin meaning “toxic tree.”
• You don’t need to come into direct contact with poison ivy to develop a rash. The oil can be carried on garden tools, pet fur, clothing, tires, lawnmowers, weed whackers, and so forth. When poison ivy is burned, the smoke can cause considerable damage to the lungs if inhaled.
• About 350,000 people will suffer from poison ivy rashes in the U.S. each year.
• The oil can remain active for up to five years. Even dead leaves still carry the oil.
• The rash cannot spread from one part of the body to the other through the blisters, or from person-to-person contact.
• To protect yourself from contact, always wear long sleeves, pants, boots, and gloves. Vinyl gloves are better than rubber gloves because the oil can penetrate rubber. Wash all items exposed to poison ivy with soap and water, and it’s best to wash your skin with soap and water using a wash cloth for added friction which is more effective at removing the oil.
• Goats can eat poison ivy with no ill effects. Some farmers rent out goats to clear parks, golf courses and historical sites of poison ivy and other weeds without using chemicals and herbicides. Deer and bear also eat poison ivy.
• Birds eat the nutritious berries of the plant with no ill effect, thereby spreading the seeds to new territory.
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