Banana Peels, White Wings, and Moby Dick

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March 12, 2022 by libroshombre

            Eric Hoffer, the American longshoreman philosopher, noticed that “Whenever you trace the origin of a skill or practices which played a crucial role in the ascent of man, we usually reach the realm of play.”  That was certainly true of reference librarians in my pre-WorldWideWeb era.  The beginning reference skills class at my library school (University of Texas Austin) required learning 800 different reference sources – handbooks, encyclopedias, and scads of indexes – and 95% of our overall grade came from the final exam: where to find the answers to 100 typical questions using no notes.  The point wasn’t knowing the answers but knowing where the answers were.

            Staffing the public library reference desk was such a kick, fielding questions that might be about anything in the known universe.  In Fairbanks I worked alongside some crackerjack reference librarians who thrived both on the intellectual challenge and in fully helping everyone, regardless of their stations in life.  We had drawers of handy card files of answers to often-asked questions, such as the dates Nenana ice tripods have fallen, previous years’ PFD payouts, local record temperatures, etc.  The cards included hard to find trivia answers, like the name of the space between and above one’s eyebrows (glabella), and the word for “the day after tomorrow” (overmorrow).  Two especially stood out: “griffonage” (a term Merriam-Webster describes as “careless handwriting : a crude or illegible scrawl,” since my handwriting was notably bad even before six hand surgeries), and “phloem bundles,” the thin strips hanging on peeled bananas.

            Bananas are fascinating physiologically, and in their relation to physical humor.  For starters, there are no banana trees; they’re the world’s largest herb, according to “What Are the Parts of a Banana Plant?,” a recent Hunker.com article by Shelley Hoose.  Banana plants have bases called rhizomes that clump up to form mats out of which aboveground shoots (AKA “ramets” or “pups”) grow into “enormous, juicy stems, called pseudostems because they are neither trunks nor actual stems but rather made up of leaf sheaths that are tightly packed. As the pseudostem grows in height, banana leaves emerge, tightly rolled like cigars and, in fact, are called ‘cigar leaves’.”  Then there’s the “peduncle” –  “the part of the stalk between the crown of the plant and the fruit …  The banana flower … droops downward in a complex structure that produces the fruit.”  The floppy strips alongside the inner banana fruit, the phloems, carry all the nutrients to the fruit.  Peeling bananas from the bottom often removes the pesky phloems as well. 

How many banana peels have you ever slipped on?  Yet how ubiquitous is the slapstick gag of banana peel pratfalls?  Those ponderings came from watching a WWII cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny battling a German gremlin who was intent on destroying American bombers.  It was explained in “How Did Slipping on a Banana Peel Become a Comedy Staple?,” a MentalFloss.com article by Laura Turner Garrison.  “Before the discovery of its comedic potential, the banana skin was considered a real public hazard. In the mid-19th century, a man named Carl B. Frank began importing Panamanian bananas to New York City. The fruit quickly became a popular street food throughout America, but the surge in urban migration and lack of sanitation regulation posed a major problem in cities. People often tossed their garbage into the streets, leading to a general foul stench and public waste buildup. A fresh banana peel might seem non-threatening, but a rotting banana peel was a slime-covered booby trap.”

“The banana peel came to symbolize poor manners. Around 1880, Harper’s Weekly admonished anyone who tossed their banana peels on a public walkway, as this would likely result in broken limbs … Sunday Schools warned children that an improperly discarded peel would not only definitively lead to a broken limb, but that the person with the broken limb would inevitably end up in the poorhouse due to this injury … During the 19th century, cities relied heavily on wild pigs that roamed the streets to dispose of rotting organic matter. This method was not wholly effective. According to the book ‘Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World ‘by Dan Koeppel, the banana peel epidemic in New York City was ultimately solved around the turn of the century by a public agency headed by a former Civil War colonel. Col. George Waring organized a fleet of uniformed workers, known as the ‘White Wings,’ who swept the streets in shifts and disposed of the waste in public composting facilities. Koeppel cites this as the ‘first large-scale recycling effort in the United States’.”

The official name of street cleaners in the early 1900s was a reference question that eluded me for decades until recently reading about Col. Waring’s White Wings.  The New York Historical Society’s brief article on them said Waring “ordered his entire brigade of sweepers to wear all white uniforms and caps. He believed the eye-catching regulation whites would keep members of the force at work and would prevent them from slacking off.”  The country clearly said “nix,” an especially popular term in the later 1800s, to carelessly discarded banana peels, but now only heard in old movies.  Etymonline.com says nix means “nothing or none” and comes from the German “nix,” a dialectal variant of “nichts” (nothing), and traces it back to the Proto-Indo-European root word “ne-” which meant “not.” 

Speaking of origins, “A Reader’s Book of Days” noted that on February 19, 1834 Ralph Waldo Emerson recorded in his journal a conversation he had during a stage coach ride with an old sailor who told of “an old sperm whale which he called a white whale which was known for many years by the whalemen as Old Tom, & and who rushed upon the boats which attacked him & crushed the boats to small chips in his jaws.”  The Melville.org site said the name “Moby Dick” “was suggested by an article by Jeremiah Reynolds, published in the New York Knickerbocker Magazine” about a similar whaleboat crusher titled “Mocha Dick: or The White Whale of the Pacific”:  “The meaning of the name itself is quite simple: the whale was often sighted in the vicinity of the island of Mocha, and ‘Dick was merely a generic name like ‘Jack’ or ‘Tom’ — names of other deadly whales cited by Melville in Chapter 45 of Moby Dick: ‘But not only did each of these famous whales enjoy great individual celebrity — nay, you may call it an ocean-wide renown … Was it not so, O Timor Jack! thou famed leviathan, scarred like an iceberg, who so long did’st lurk in the Oriental straits of that name, whose spout was oft seen from the palmy beach of Ombay?”

Melville, who worked as a common sailor from 1841-1844, might well have morphed Mocha into Moby Dick.  “Moby Dick” was published in 1851 in London, but the publisher hired “revisers” who were, Wikipedia says, “responsible for “unauthorized changes ranging from typographical errors and omissions to acts of outright censorship’ … the British edition was ‘badly mutilated’” cutting 1,200 words they deemed sacrilegious, and others dealing with sexuality and “belittling royalty.”   They also completely cut the book’s “Epilogue” describing Ishmael’s ultimate survival.  Consequently, “Moby Dick” didn’t sell well in his lifetime: only 3,215 copies in the following 34 years, and it was largely forgotten until 1930 when Rockwell Kent insisted on illustrating it.  Kent’s fame led to it being rediscovered and becoming a best-seller and literary classic.  There’s a first edition copy in the Noel Wien Library Antiquarian Collection, that nicely enhances the library’s incredible collection of Kent artworks. 

Usually, as Vladimir Putin said, “It is necessary to suppress any extremist actions, on all sides, regardless of their origin.”

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