“The Musical Small-Coal Man”


Thomas Britton (1644-1714) gave the 17th century proof that a flower can bloom wherever it’s planted. Though a humble coal merchant, Britton so distinguished himself in chemistry, book collecting, and music that he attracted admirers among the high-born. And, wonderfully, when he converted the tiny loft over his coal repository into a concert hall, they attended a weekly series of chamber music concerts there.

“The ceiling of the room in which his concert was held was so low that a tall man could scarcely stand erect in it,” runs one account. “The staircase was outside the house, and could scarcely be ascended without crawling; yet ladies of the first rank in the kingdom forgot the difficulty with which they ascended the steps in the pleasure of Britton’s concert, which was attended by the most distinguished professors.”

The concerts came to be thought the best in London, attracting both wealthy music lovers and the most eminent musicians (including, by some accounts, Handel himself).

Throughout all this Britton continued to work in the coal trade and charged only the lowest subscription rates. “Britton was indeed so much distinguished that when passing along the streets in his blue linen frock, and with his sack of small-coal on his back, he was frequently accosted with such expressions as these: ‘There goes the famous small-coal man who is a lover of learning, a performer of music, and a companion for gentlemen.'”

Indeed, after a lifetime mixing with high and low, Britton died renowned for both humility and cultivation. The poet John Hughes wrote, “Let useless pomp behold, and blush to find / So low a station, such a liberal mind.”

The Multiplier

A 1784 letter from Ben Franklin to Benjamin Webb, an American in France who had applied for his aid:

Dear Sir,

I received yours of the 15th Instant, and the Memorial it inclosed. The account they give of your situation grieves me. I send you herewith a Bill for Ten Louis d’ors. I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you shall return to your Country with a good Character, you cannot fail of getting into some Business, that will in time enable you to pay all your Debts. In that Case, when you meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money. I am not rich enough to afford much in good works, and so am obliged to be cunning and make the most of a little. With best wishes for the success of your Memorial, and your future prosperity, I am, dear Sir, your most obedient servant,

B. Franklin.

Fair Enough

In 1970, each political candidate in Oregon could specify a 12-word slogan to be printed under his name on the ballot.

Frank Hatch of Eugene, who was running as a Democrat for Congress, chose this:

“Anyone who thinks in 12-word slogans should not be on this ballot.”


Something queer happened to Seattle in 1954: Citizens began noticing pits in their windshields. These were attributed first to vandals with BB guns, then to the eggs of sand fleas, and then variously to cosmic rays, a change in the planet’s magnetic field, and a new Navy radio transmitter.

As the rumors mounted, University of Washington glass expert Harley Bovee heard even stranger reports: “glass breaking on store counter while customer reported simultaneous itching; man on nearby island who reported seeing small glow near Big Dipper; and man who reported seeing small spheres emerging from auto tailpipes.”

In the week of April 14, police received reports of 4,294 damaged windshields — but then they stopped abruptly.

The culprit, it now appears, was nothing at all. “The hard fact,” said glass expert James Ashley, “is that this seems to be wholly psychological. Certainly there are some marks being found on windshields. But there always have been. If after hearing rumors you hurry out to examine your own windshield closely, you stand a fair chance of being able to find some ‘pits.’” The epidemic is now regarded as a textbook instance of collective delusion.

Foiled Again

From now on there will be no boxing among Communists in Indiana. The State Athletic Commission announced that henceforth boxers would have to take a non-Communist oath before fighting, and would face the question: ‘Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?’

Life, Nov. 1, 1954


In 1978, as part of an initiative to adopt gender-neutral language, the city council of Woonsocket, R.I., dubbed its manholes “personholes.”

After two weeks of nationwide derision, they changed their minds.

Time reported, “The council members voted to go back to manholes, indicating that it will be a long time before a person-person delivers Woonsocket’s mail.”

Enough Already


Acclaimed English actress Sarah Siddons made her Dublin debut in May 1784. Evidently some Irish theatergoers felt the hype was excessive — here’s one sardonic review, quoted in English as She Is Wrote, 1883:

“On Sunday, Mrs. Siddons, about whom all the world has been talking, exposed her beautiful, adamantine, soft, and lovely person, for the first time at Smock Alley Theatre in the bewitching, melting, and all tearful character of Isabella. From the repeated panegyrics of the impartial London newspapers, we were taught to expect the sight of a heavenly angel, but how were we supernaturally surprised into almost awful joy at beholding a mortal goddess! … When she came to the scene of parting with her wedding ring, ah! what a sight was there! the very fiddlers in the orchestra, albeit unused to melting mood, blubbered like hungry children crying for their bread and butter! and when the bell rang for music between the acts the tears ran from the bassoon players’ eyes in such plentiful showers that they choked the finger stops, and making a spout of the instrument poured in such torrents on the first fiddler’s book that not seeing the overture was in two sharps, the leader of the band played it in one flat. But the sobs and sighs of the groaning audience and the noise of corks drawn from smelling bottles prevented the mistakes between sharps and flats being heard. One hundred and nine ladies fainted! forty-six went into fits! and ninety-five had strong hysterics. The world will scarcely credit the truth when they are told that fourteen children, five old men, one hundred tailors, and six common councilmen were actually drowned in the inundation of tears that flowed from the galleries, the slips, and the boxes, to increase the briny pond in the pit. The water was three feet deep. An Act of Parliament will certainly be passed against her playing any more!”

Too Much Glory


When Louis XIV asked, “What time is it?”, he was told, “Whatever time your majesty desires.”

When Louis comforted the duke of Saint-Aignan on the death of his son, Roger de Rabutin wrote, “It is only near him that a parent can find some pleasure in losing his children.”

When Louis asked Boileau’s opinion of his verses, the poet said, “Ah, sire, I am convinced that nothing is impossible to your majesty. You desired to write some poor rhymes, and you have succeeded in making them positively detestable.”

During a lecture on chemistry, Louis Jacques Thénard told Charles X, “These gases are going to have the honor of combining before your majesty.”

The subjects of James I expressed the wish that he might reign over them as long as the sun, moon, and stars should endure. “I suppose, then,” muttered the king, “they mean my successor to reign by candlelight.”

Modern Ills

“Twelve Ways to Commit Suicide,” from the American Medical Journal, reprinted in the Manhattan and de la Salle Monthly, 1875:

  1. Wearing of thin shoes and cotton stockings on damp nights and in cold, rainy weather. Wearing insufficient clothing, and especially upon the limbs and extremities.
  2. Leading a life of enfeebling, stupid laziness, and keeping the mind in an unnatural state of excitement by reading trashy novels. Going to theatres, parties and balls in all sorts of weather, in the thinnest possible dress. Dancing till in a complete perspiration, and then going home without sufficient over-garments through the cold, damp air.
  3. Sleeping on feather-beds, in seven-by-nine bedrooms, without ventilation at the top of the windows, and especially with two or more persons in the same small, unventilated bedroom.
  4. Surfeiting on hot and very stimulating dinners. Eating in a hurry, without masticating your food, and eating heartily before going to bed every night, when the mind and body are exhausted by the toils of the day and the excitement of the evening.
  5. Beginning in childhood on tea and coffee, and going from one step to another, through chewing and smoking tobacco and drinking intoxicating liquors, and physical and mental excesses of every description.
  6. Marrying in haste and getting an uncongenial companion, and living the remainder of life in mental dissatisfaction. Cultivating jealousies and domestic broils, and being always in a mental ferment.
  7. Keeping children quiet by giving paregoric and cordials, by teaching them to suck candy, and by supplying them with raisins, nuts, and rich cake. When they are sick, by humoring their whims, indulging their fancies, and pampering their appetites, with the mistaken notion of being extra kind to them.
  8. Allowing the love of gain to absorb our minds, so as to leave no time to attend to our health. Following an unhealthy occupation because money can be made by it.
  9. Tempting the appetite with bitters and niceties when the stomach says No, and by forcing food when nature does not demand and even rejects it. Gormandizing between meals.
  10. Contriving to keep in a continual worry about something or nothing. Giving way to fits of anger.
  11. Being irregular in all our habits of sleeping and eating, going to bed at midnight and getting up at noon. Eating too much, too many kinds of food, and that which is too highly seasoned.
  12. Neglecting to take proper care of ourselves, and not applying early for medical advice when disease first appears. Taking celebrated quack medicines to a degree of making a drug shop of the body.

A Blind Aye

Rep. Tom Moore was dismayed at how often his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives passed bills without understanding them. So in April 1971 he sponsored a resolution honoring Albert de Salvo:

This compassionate gentleman’s dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout the nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology.

That’s true as far as it goes — Albert de Salvo is the Boston Strangler.

The measure passed unanimously.