Today’s post comes to us from Steve.
Few of us encounter mysteries, I think. Life is usually dull. But now and then something seems wrong. Something doesn’t make sense.
As a hunter and fisherman, I always had a secret dread of being the person who would discover a corpse. Murderers often discard bodies in remote areas, I’ve read, and I spent much of my life blundering about in remote places. In the back of my head I always worried I would be tramping around looking for a grouse when I would find someone’s decaying arm sticking out of the ground from a shallow grave. For example, a murder victim was once hidden in Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area, and I used to hunt there.
My sister once became curious about family history. By snooping around in old boxes she turned up old court records revealing the existence of a legal half-brother that our parents had never mentioned. It seemed a shocking family scandal.
The truth turned out to be much less exciting. My father was accused of fathering a child by a young woman who became pregnant out of wedlock in the 1930s. The charge was false, our parents explained calmly. At the time there were no scientific ways to prove or disprove paternity in what lawyers called “bastard cases.” My dad’s lawyer told him to plead guilty and to pay the unwed mother, who wanted $200 to cover maternity bills. The story was funny rather than shocking, and it involved a cow sculpted from butter. Some friends of this web site know the whole story, for I wrote about it in my unpublished book about my family.
I have led a mostly boring life, and yet there once was a mystery that excited my imagination.
In my home town of Ames, Iowa, there was a curious round brick building near the high school football field and track arena. The “Field House” began life as a shelter for Chautauqua attendees in 1928. The Chautauqua movement was a fascinating development that flourished in early decades of the 20th century. The building was later built up to form an odd round brick structure that hosted athletic events. By the time I was a kid in Ames the Field House was boarded up and unused.
One day in 1960 some friends and I happened to look in the windows of the old field house. It was filled with an astonishing number of cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling. We had never seen so many boxes in one place. Each one was identical, and each bore the word “Crest.” What was in those boxes? Why would anyone stockpile many thousand boxes in an abandoned building? Was this some secret government program?
Before long, we understood the mystery of the Crest boxes. For decades Procter and Gamble had been experimenting with toothpaste formulas. In the 1950s P & G learned that adding stannous fluoride to their paste would radically reduce cavities among people who faithfully brushed with Crest.
But consumers were slow to pick up on this. In the absence of truth in advertising legislation, people hawked miracle products to cure everything from cancer to arthritis to “wind in the belly.” Our family doctor once confessed that he went to medical school on the profits of some “snake oil” cure-all that his grandfather sold in little bottles. If such little bottles were filled with flavored alcohol, they usually sold well. In my own childhood the marketplace promoted such dubious products as Geritol (a cure for “tired blood”) and Carter’s Little Liver Pills.
Crest toothpaste, which actually reduced dental disease by 40 percent, only claimed ten percent of the toothpaste market in the 1950s. Then the American Dental Association conducted studies that confirmed the effectiveness of fluoride. The ADA had never endorsed a product before. In 1960 the ADA officially named Crest as the only toothpaste that reduced cavities. Knowing that this announcement would hit the market like a bombshell, P & G went into feverish production and filled warehouses with boxes of Crest in the months before the announcement was released. The old field house in Ames was one of many such stockpiles. Crest dominated the toothpaste market for decades until the practice of adding fluoride to drinking water reduced the need for fluoridated toothpaste.
Have you ever discovered a mystery?