Some people are quickly forgotten after they die, while others are at least remembered through their names even if the general public knows nothing else about them. And in many cases we know a word, but have no idea that that word was ever associated with a living human being’s name. For instance, how much do you know about Antoine Cadillac, Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, and Walter Chrysler? You have probably guessed that all four men started car companies, but you probably know little more than that. Others’ names are not readily associated with anything. Why are the names Anders Dahl, Rudolph Boysen, Elbridge Gerry, Mary Kay Ash, Irene Langhorne, and Charles Mason remembered?
All of the people listed above, and many more, are included in a delightful book by Laura Lee titled The Name’s Familiar. Lee gives us a single paragraph biography about each of a thousand or so people, and at the end of each entry tells us why that person is (or was in the past) associated with something well known. At the end she has a section called “Shorts” in which she gives us one or two sentences about approximately 100 more people.
She says she started collecting information when she was doing a Tuesday trivia segment while working at radio station WAGE in Leesburg, Virginia. Her natural curiosity kicked in and she began to wonder if everything had somebody’s name associated with it – things like Oscar Mayer wieners and Pringles Potato Chips, for instance. At the same time her listeners started asking her if things like M&Ms and Harley Davidson motorcycles were named after actual people. Before long she had a huge file of trivia about names, and ultimately decided to write a book about the subject.
The resulting book is fun to read and lends itself to intermittent browsing. It’s the kind of book you can read in bed at night, but you have to be careful that you don’t stay up late because you’ve lost track of time while reading her well-crafted entries.
Below you will find information on a few of the people she mentions in her book. I summarize what she has written and, in a few cases, add a little information of my own. I think you will be entertained by what follows.
Mary Kay Ash – Ash was born in Texas in 1913. When her husband died in World War II, she went to work for Stanley Home Products which gave house parties to sell their products. She later went to work for the World Gift Company, but left them when she realized that she, a woman, was limited in her ability to rise through the ranks. In 1963 she started the Mary Kay Cosmetics Company.
Martha Jane Canary – Canary was born in Princeton, New Jersey. Her family was troubled, so she went out west, and made her living as a sharpshooter. It was said that anyone who crossed Jane, as she was then called, was in for a calamity – as were her husbands and lovers including Wild Bill Hickock.
William Russell Frisbee – Frisbee started the Frisbee Pie Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut way back in 1871. The students at Yale University liked his pies, and they liked his pie tins because they sailed through the air beautifully. Many years later What-O marketed a flying disc that they called a Pluto Platter. When a company executive heard about the game they played at Yale with Frisbee’s pie tins, Wham-O changed the name of their flying disc to Frisbee. They became extremely popular, and still sell well.
Alice Liddell – Liddell and her sisters Edith and Lorina became friends with a mathematician and photographer named Charles Dodgson. When Alice was ten, she and her sisters went rowing with Dodgson who often made up stories to amuse them. On that outing he made up a story about a girl name Alice who had some strange adventures. Alice liked the story so much that she asked Dodgson to write it down. The result was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Jules Leotard – Leotard was the trapeze artist who inspired the song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” But, he is best known for the tight-fitting outfit he wore when performing. Now lots of people wear leotards.
Maria Montessori – Montessori, who was born in Rome, was the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree. She worked with mentally handicapped children, and developed a teaching method that emphasized the autonomy and freedom of movement of the children. Montessori schools exist now around the world.
Adelina Patti – Patti was born in Madrid to Italian parents, but grew up in New York, and became a famous opera singer. In 1896 Henry Armstrong wrote a song, and his friend, Richard H. Gerard provided the lyrics. They presented “Sweet Rosalie” to many publishers, but none accepted it. While passing a poster announcing the farewell tour of Adelina Patti they decided to rename the song “Sweet Adeline.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Cecil Rhodes – Rhodes was born in England, but made his fortune as a young man in the diamond mines of South Africa. He then returned to England where he fulfilled a life-long dream to obtain a degree from Oxford College. When he died he left over six million pounds to Oxford College for the establishment of the Rhodes Scholarship. Also, Rhodesia is named after him.
Daniel E. Salmon – Salmon was the first person to earn a doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Cornell University. He was very involved in eradicating animal illnesses, but is best known for his 1885 discovery of the cause of the illness that now bears his name – salmonella. He then began a federal meat inspection program.
Henry Shrapnel – Shrapnel was a second lieutenant in the British Royal artillery in 1784 when he got the idea for a new kind of shell that would be filled with gun powder and musket balls. The revolutionary idea was that the shell would explode in the air, thus spreading the balls over a large area. He has the dubious honor of being the man who invented what is now called shrapnel.
Lee has written a second book about names that is titled The Name’s Familiar II. Both books are still available.