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Mychal Wilmes: Snuff was the stuff of royalty

Rubbernecking, as practiced when telephone party lines were the norm and those who wanted to be in the know could serendipitously listen to their neighbors converse, was mostly practiced without gossiping intent. The Golden Rule was bent enough to allow Mother and others to listen in when opportunities arose.

With a hand cupped over the mouthpiece and a stern command for quiet, she heard a neighbor's daughter on a Costa Rican mission trip talk things over with her mother and listened in as a lover shared soap opera-like secrets with his intended.

It was an unspoken but tolerated privacy invasion because most, if not all, line mates indulged.

Rubbernecking — as defined in the dictionary as a strange curiousness that causes one to crane their neck — earned a bumpkin reputation mostly through the writings of social critic H.L. Mencken, who called tourists awed by big city sights "rubberneck rubes."

Cellphone conversations monitored by government authorities might be called surveillance, but at its most basic is rubbernecking.


It isn't rubbernecking when a sidewalk conversation is overheard. I called it a happy diversion when two girls who hadn't reached their Sweet 16 years engaged in boisterous sidewalk talk.

"Yuck,'' the taller one said. "I'd never kiss a boy who chews tobacco.''

"It's gross,'' said the shorter second one.

I didn't interject. Their consensus would have been different had they walked on a sidewalk in France when the gilded Versailles Palace was in full flower.

Young and upper-crust women entered the palace wearing refined spring dresses with accessories to match. Accessory essentials included fancy snuff-sniffing boxes that suggested great wealth and the coolest chic. Snuff sniffing was a craze among the elegant; cigarettes were for the poor and unrefined.

King Louis XV thought so little of sniffing that he banned it from the royal court. Pope Urban — convinced that snuff was a prime example of moral collapse — threatened Roman Catholics who used snuff with excommunication and hence eternal damnation.

Versailles Palace, which was a symbol of French grandeur then and remains so now, was not a pleasant place in the 18th century. Men and women doused themselves in perfume to substitute for bathing because washing was linked to illness.

A contemporary writer remarked after a visit to Versailles that clashing perfumes and poor ventilation caused the place to smell like a pigsty.


Snuff sniffing as refined taste faded at about the same time a British doctor reported that it caused nasal cancer.

The French changed their hygiene habits and eventually public bath users were taxed to help pay for Versailles.

I held on to the earlier French attitude well into my later youth — an unkemptness that caused Mother no small frustration. Dad, who thought playing in the mud and dirt was an indication that I would become a farmer, was more accepting.

Mother demanded action via outside intervention. A particularly aggressive sister-in-law led the charge, restraining me with a strong thumb pressed like a vice against an earlobe.

Her prisoner — probably against applicable Geneva Convention rules — was marched to the bathroom where only a window represented a possible escape route. If I failed to adequately rub skin raw, retaliation would come in the form of wanton, wet kisses administered by several women folk.

Soap and water exposed a diamond in the dirt. I have since become more accepting of both baths and kisses.

Some insist showers and their high-powered heads are far better because less water is used and hence are more environmentally friendly. Experts recommend four-minute showers, but a study that involved 20,000 people found that the average length is eight minutes and hence benefits swing bath's way. The same study found that people in Colombia and Brazil shower more than once a day. Americans, along with the Spanish and French, average less than one daily.

Shower-taking came turned out most popular in the survey, but I think they are all wet. After all, Grandson Elliot's plastic toys aren't much use in the shower.

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