It's easy to take the objects around us for granted, to assume we know how they came to be, and to forget the extraordinary roots of ordinary things. Stories of invention are often hard to verify because every new idea stands on the shoulders of older ones and they make for great urban legends. Adding to the trouble, some of the true tales are too good to be believed, while others are so counterintuitive as to make you reach for your Snopes. But the origin stories of simple household objects sitting in plain sight can tell us more about the past (and the present) than we might imagine. Here are a few unlikely lessons from handy things.
In an episode of the sitcom Friends, Lisa Kudrow's character Phoebe claims that her great-great-grandmother ("Nestley Toulouse") passed down the cookie recipe on the back of the chocolate-chip bag. As it happens, a woman did single-handedly invent chocolate-chip cookies, but she wasn't from France—she was from Massachusetts. According to a popular version of this story, sometime in the 1930s, Ruth Graves Wakefield was baking chocolate cookies at the restaurant she ran in Whitman, Massachusetts, when, without enough time to melt the chocolate, Wakefield threw in whole chunks of a Nestlé bar. People loved the improvisation, and the rest is history. But that's not quite what happened, according to food historian Caroline Wyman.
Wakefield wasn't a distracted proprietress; she was a talented and well-educated home economist, as well as an accomplished chef. In fact, Wakefield was something closer to the Martha Stewart of her day, and an early product of the American public-education system; she graduated from the Framingham State Normal School Department of Household Arts in 1924, two years after the nation's second teachers college started issuing bachelor's degrees in education. By the time she invented the chocolate chip cookie, Wakefield already had a cookbook to go with the restaurant: Her Toll House Tried and True Recipes went through dozens of printings. (According to the Boston Globe, the restaurant had never been a tollhouse—that was just good branding.)
The cookies became a local delicacy, and, after Massachusetts soldiers received them in care packages from home during World War II, the adoration went national, according to Wyman. The cookies became so famous that Nestlé started selling bags of chips—and offered Wakefield a lifetime of chocolate (and $1) for a license on the Toll House name and her recipe.