The Arts of Misdirection: "You know, for kids."

"You know, for kids."

by Hua Tian and Hao Tan,
PhD candidates at Polytechnique School of Montreal

Simple things make life different, just like the two things the story of which we want to share here today: the hula hoop and the drinking straw. The reason why we choose these two things is simply that we were inspired by the movie: “The Hudsucker Proxy”.

This movie is a comedy film, the story is quite out of date compared with the New Hollywood production. In December 1958, Norville Barnes, a business college graduate arrives in New York City looking for a job. He struggles due to lack of experience and he becomes a mailroom clerk at Hudsucker Industries. Meanwhile, the company's founder and president, Waring Hudsucker, unexpectedly commits suicide by jumping out of a top-floor window. In the mailroom, Norville is assigned to deliver a "Blue Letter" to Mussburger, a ruthless member of the board of directors. However, he takes the opportunity to pitch an invention he's been working on which is actually a simple drawing of a circle and his cryptic explanation, "you know, for kids." Believing Norville to be an idiot, Mussburger selects him as a proxy for Hudsucker. The invention is exactly the hula hoop, which initially fails but turns out to be an enormous success. And the flex-straw is also invented in this movie by the eager elevator operator of Hudsucker, Buzz.

 But is it the real truth that the hula hoop is invented in this way? The fact is not this simple. In the ancient society, people had created a much similar thing with circular hoops made from grapevines and stiff grasses. And more than 3000 years ago, children in Egypt played with large hoops made of dried grapevines which were propelled along the ground with a stick or swung around at the waist.

Then during the 14th century, “hooping” was brought into England, and gradually became popular among adults and kids. As for the name “hula hoop”, in the early 19th century, when British sailors visited the Hawaiian Islands, they noticed that the body movements of hula dancing were the same with the “hooping”, and then the name “hula hoop” was born.

After that in 1957, an Australian company started to produce the hula hoops with wood and sold in retail stores. This item attracted the attention of Richard P. Knerr and Arthur K. Melin of Wham-0 company. They made a plastic hoop with different bright colors and promoted it in 1958 on Southern California playgrounds where they did demonstrations and gave away hoops to get the children to learn and play. In the first four months, they sold 25 million hula hoops at a price of $1.98 for each. This made them became one of the most successful manufacturers of modern hula hoops.

Now let’s pay attention to the next invention-flexi-straw, ancient people had used the natural rye acted as “drinking tubes” for more than 7000 years, then two men reinvented the straw in the last 150 years. The first one made it modern and the second made it bend.

The first man named Marvin Chester Stone, one day, he felt thirsty, so he sipped a mint julep at his home of 9th Street in Washington, D.C. But something got in his drink. It was his straw. It is very common in 1880s that when gentlemen sipped their whiskey through long tubes made of natural rye that lent a grassy flavor to whatever drink they plopped in. But at that time he could not bear it anymore, so he decided to improve it. In his first try, he wound paper around a pencil to make a thin tube, sliding out the pencil from one end, and applied glue between the strips. But this was just a halfway solution. Later Stone refined it by building a machine to wind paper into a tube coating the outside with a paraffin wax to keep it from melting in the bourbon. He patented the product in 1888. Until now, he is still considered the godfather of the straw.

The second man named Joseph B. Friedman. Half a century after Stone found grass in his julep, Friedman was sitting at his brother’s fountain parlor, watching his little daughter fuss over a milkshake. She was drinking out of a paper straw, since Stone’s paper straw was designed to be straight, little girl was struggling to drink it up. Then Friedman got an idea, he brought a straw to his home and inserted a screw into the straw toward the top, then wrapped dental floss around the paper, tracing grooves made by the inserted screw. Finally, he removed the screw, leaving an accordion-like ridge in the middle of the once-straight straw. So he created a straw that could bend around its grooves to reach a child’s face over the edge of a glass. The modern bendy straw was then born and the plastic one would come later.