Moving Day

Changing apartments in New York City is an ordeal today, but it’s a great improvement over the old system, when every lease in the city expired at 9 a.m. on May 1 and thousands of people moved to new lodgings simultaneously. Davy Crockett witnessed the spectacle during a visit in 1834:

By the time we returned down Broadway, it seemed to me that the city was flying before some awful calamity. ‘Why,’ said I, ‘Colonel, what under heaven is the matter? Everyone appears to be pitching out their furniture, and packing it off.’ He laughed, and said this was the general ‘moving day.’ Such a sight nobody ever saw unless it was in this same city. It seemed a kind of frolic, as if they were changing houses just for fun. Every street was crowded with carts, drays, and people. So the world goes. It would take a good deal to get me out of my log-house; but here, I understand, many persons ‘move’ every year.

The tradition ran from colonial times until World War II, when a shortage of men finally ended it. That’s more than a century, an oddly long run for such an unpopular practice. “There may be some doubt as to whether landlords make out leases to suit the habits of the people, or whether the habits are a result of the leases,” journalist Luke Grant wrote in 1909, “but there is no doubt that the custom imposes hardships on every one concerned.”

In a Word

n. to pass over in favor of another

Fuel Efficiency

In 1995 Nicole M. Dubus patented a fork with an electronic timer that indicates when it’s okay to take another bite.

“The present invention can assist people to be more aware of their eating habits and pace themselves between bites, thus slowing down their rate of consumption and helping them change their eating habits to more healthy and enjoyable ones.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We never repent of having eaten too little.”

Making Faces

Claiming to be haunted by the “spirit of proportion,” German sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-83) found he could subdue its attacks by pinching himself and pulling a face in a mirror. Pleased with this success, he resolved to sculpt every “canonical” variety of human grimace.

By the time of his death at age 47, he had executed 69 “character heads” in lead, stone, and wood. None had been commissioned, and none were sold during his lifetime; they were the product of a peculiarly personal obsession and a passionate discipline. (A visitor who had observed him in 1781 noted that Messerschmidt “looked into the mirror every half minute and made, with the greatest exactitude, precisely that grimace which he just needed.”)

Interpreting the heads has been equally the province of psychology and art history. Messerschmidt may have been mentally ill, but he was undeniably gifted, and it appears he achieved the goal he had set. “It is utterly strange,” wrote Jonathan Jones of a recent Louvre exhibition. “No other artist of the age worked in a similar way, and you sense a long sickness of compulsive, isolated behaviour in what are nevertheless great works of art.”

The Frog Barometer

Take one of those small green frogs which are found in hedges, put it in a white glass bottle, the neck of which must be large enough to receive the little animal tout a fait a son aise. Previous to its being let down, put in the bottle some earth and water to the height of about four fingers breadth; and also a little wooden ladder that may reach from the bottom to the lower part of the neck. Let the bottle be properly stopped with a piece of parchment, pricked with a pin so as to admit the air. As long as the weather continues fair, the frog stands a-top of the ladder, but goes down into the water at the approach of rain. You must from time to time, that is, every week or fortnight, change the water. Many of those animals have been known to live three years without any food.

The New Lady’s Magazine, April 1789

A Personal Touch,_Ohio

Two phantom towns appeared on Michigan’s official state map in 1978. Their names, Goblu and Beatosu, showed pretty clearly that the culprit was a University of Michigan graduate, and state highway commission chairman Peter Fletcher admitted to asking a cartographer to add them. A fellow UM alum had teased him that the Mackinac bridge was painted green and white, the colors of rival Michigan State, and Fletcher had found a surreptitious way to support his alma mater.

Fletcher noted in a 2008 interview that he took care to place the fake towns in Ohio, safely outside Michigan state lines. “We have no legal liability for anything taking place in that intellectual swamp south of Monroe,” he said.

“A more personal example of creative cartography is Mount Richard, which in the early 1970s suddenly appeared on the continental divide on a county map prepared in Boulder, Colorado,” writes Mark Monmonier in How to Lie With Maps (1991). “Believed to be the work of Richard Ciacci, a draftsman in the public works department, Mount Richard was not discovered for two years. Such pranks raise questions about the extent of yet-undetected mischief by mapmakers reaching for geographic immortality.”

Going to Town

A fine tortoiseshell cat was on Friday morning the 27th ult. seen approaching London Bridge, peaceably seated in a large bowl-dish. As she advanced towards the fall, every one present anticipated that she would be overturned, and precipitated into the stream. She kept her seat, however, with great presence of mind, and amidst loud cheers shot the centre arch with as much dexterity as the most experienced waterman. A boy hearing her voice shortly after she had made the hazardous attempt, and fancying she wanted a pilot, rowed towards her, and took her into his wherry, when he found around her neck a parchment scroll, stating that she had come from Richmond Bridge, and directing, if she should reach London in safety, that she should be conveyed to a Mrs. Clarke, in High-street, in the Borough, who would reward the bringer. The boy, in pursuance of these instructions, conveyed poor puss to Mrs. Clarke, who seemed to be apprised of the circumstance, and rewarded the messenger with half a crown. It turned out that the voyage was undertaken for a wager between two Richmond Gentlemen, and that puss embarked at the turn of the tide in the course of the night, and happily reached her destination without sustaining any injury.

Caledonian Mercury, Sept. 2, 1813

Parting Words

The tombstone of James Leeson (1756-1794) in New York’s Trinity Churchyard bears a curious inscription.

It remained a local puzzle until 1889, when the Trinity Record discovered its meaning.

Can you unriddle the cipher?

Click for Answer

The Wason Card Task

You’re presented with the four cards above. Each has a number on one side and a color on the other. Which card(s) must be turned over to test the idea that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?

In a 1966 study by Peter Wason, fewer than 10 percent of respondents correctly indicated the 8 and brown cards.

Interestingly, respondents perform significantly better when they’re presented with the same task in the context of policing a social rule (e.g., the rule is “If you are drinking alcohol then you must be over 21″ and the cards are marked “27,” “16,” “drinking Coke,” “drinking beer”). About 90 percent of people perform this task correctly — supporting the idea that our facility for such tasks evolved to catch cheaters in a social environment.


Toads are associated with some wonderful myths, and my scepticism was naturally great when my friend Mr. H. Martin Leake assured me, while on a visit to Cawnpore in October of 1915, that toads would eat red-hot charcoal. An after-dinner demonstration, however, soon dispelled my doubts. Small fragments of charcoal heated to a glowing red were thrown on the cement floor in front of several of the small toads (usually Bufo stomaticus) which so commonly invade bungalows at that time of year, and, to my surprise, the glowing fragments were eagerly snapped up and swallowed. The toads appeared to suffer no inconvenience, since not only did they not exhibit any signs of discomfort, but, on the contrary, several toads swallowed two or even three fragments in succession. A probable explanation of the picking-up is that the toads mistook the luminous pieces of charcoal for glow-worms or fireflies, the latter being numerous in the grounds of the Agricultural College at Cawnpore in October; but this does not account for the swallowing of the hot particles–the absence of any attempt to disgorge. I repeated the experiment at Allahabad in August, 1916, with the same results (the toads even attempting to pick up glowing cigarette-ends), though I have never observed glow-worms or fireflies in Allahabad at any time of year.

— W.N.F. Woodland, in Nature, September 1920