Homo shopis

Something funny happens when authorities try to abstract pictograms from human beings.

We all know that a figure with full legs means: man.


And a figure like a double ice lolly: woman. (Her arms are slightly shorter and hopelessly pushed aside by the crinolined dress she is wearing.)


This is how we are supposed to recognize which WC to use. But what happens if we do not need to make a choice according to which gender we belong to? You get this:





Clearly, these pictures address everyone. Every human being is expected to be careful on the stairs, throw their rubbish in a bin, and so on. Even if you belong to that half of humanity who should feel that she becomes that ice lolly whenever she needs to pee, forget about that identity in these ‘neutral’ or ‘general’ cases.

Ok, so let us assume women and men have learnt this lesson – the lesson that in toilets, a figure with long legs means ‘man’, but that everywhere else, a figure with long legs means: ‘everyone’. And then they are confronted with this:

Own photo (all other pictograms from Wikimedia commons)

The photo was taken next to a Dutch train station and points the way to the buses, trains and city centre. But who represents the city centre? The woman who had to go to the loo! (Is that her powder bag she is holding?)

So according to the complicated logic we had just taken great pains to learn, the city centre is a non-neutral place where only women are welcome. Men will be shooed from this intimate place. Maybe hit with make-up bags.

Of course the implicit message is that if you recognize yourself in the specifically female figure, you must be happy to be directed towards you favourite pastime, which is shopping. And if you consider yourself a man and still venture to the place with the powder bags, your self-respect will suffer. On the other hand, to make a journey by bus or train would be a transgressive activity for a woman to engage in. (Or perhaps the advice is for both train spotters and lovers of women to turn right, and bring their binoculars with them?)

It is as if the institutions placing these signs think of their customers as belonging to several distinct species:

The skirted figure is the Homo hoogcatharinensis, well-known in the Netherlands and a subspecies of the more generally occuring Homo mercatus. This species can apparently only be found in its female form. It is suspected that they morph into the more usual male form of the other Homo species when not engaged in their primary hunting and gathering activities, when they can be found hiking, shooting arrows, and throwing little cubes in bins.

We willen geen ambachtelijke poffertjes

Bij de consumentenbond is ophef ontstaan over het gebruik van de term ‘ambachtelijk’. Blijkbaar voeren allerlei producten in supermarkten die benaming onterecht.

Het product dat als voorbeeld wordt genoemd: ‘Oma’s poffertjes’, uit een Nederlandse supermarktketen.  ‘Ambachtelijke poffertjes’.

‘We zijn benieuwd naar deze oma’, schrijft de Consumentenbond. Nou ben ik best bereid iets over haar te vertellen.

photo originally published on

foto oorspronkelijk gepubliceerd op website Consumentenbond

De oma van de poffertjes komt waarschijnlijk uit de tweede helft van de negentiende eeuw of het begin van de twintigste, aan haar kapje, jurk en schort te zien. Ongetwijfeld zal zij haar poffertjes met de hand hebben gebakken (tenzij ze ze van de kermis haalde, want had ze wel een poffertjesplaat in huis?). Tot zover ambachtelijk dus. Maar wat stopte ze erin?

Het graan en de melk die we op de verpakking van de poffertjes zien, zal deze oma niet zelf hebben verbouwd (kippen hield ze misschien wel, voor de eieren). Tarwebloem en boekweitmeel kwamen vaak van de meelfabriek, zeker voor wie in de stad woonde. Melk kwam van melkveebedrijven – poffertjes werden trouwens vaak met water in plaats van melk en zonder eieren gemaakt. Gist kwam bijvoorbeeld uit de brouwerij, een grootschalig bedrijf, en later uit gespecialiseeerde fabrieken. Boter, tot slot, werd vaak in fabrieken gemaakt, waarbij ook kleurstof niet werd geschuwd, terwijl veel huishoudens zich tot het goedkopere margarine wendden: ook al niet ambachtelijk.

De vraag rijst of consumenten ooit van een product als supermarktpoffertjes zouden verwachten dat het met de hand gemaakt is en op dezelfde manier als zij het thuis zouden doen. Zij snappen heus wel dat je voor handgebakken poffertjes naar de kermis moet. Op de verpakking staat ook niet ‘met de hand gemaakt’, dus gelogen wordt er niet. ‘Ambachtelijk’ blijft ondertussen een betrekkelijk vaag begrip, en de commercie zal het wel nooit zonder zulke vage kwalificaties zullen stellen (‘heerlijk’, ‘de beste’, ‘authentiek’…).

En als er blijkbaar vraag is naar het veel goedkopere product dat de supermarkt verkoopt, ondanks dat dat minder lekker is, dan moeten winkelbezoekers dat misschien zelf weten? Want het is alleen door schaalvergroting dat zo veel mensen tegenwoordig de keuze hebben uit zo veel verschillende etenswaar. Als alles nog ambachtelijk gebeurde, nam u vanochtend waarschijnlijk geen suiker in uw koffie (en las u geen krant), at u geen koekje bij de thee, dronk u geen pilsje na het werk en at u geen varkenslapje.

Het ambacht past niet in ons huidige voedingspatroon; kleinschaligheid niet bij de maat van de wereldbevolking. De consument lijdt daar niet direct onder; hooguit de poffertjesbakker.

Zie ook Geschiedenis van de techniek in Nederland, deel I,  de poffertjesfamiliegeschiedenis van Henk Werk en WikiDelft.

Change of minds: our drug ‘habit’ besieged from two sides at once

Read the papers, watch the news, and you witness a monumental change in the way we deal with psychoactive food stuffs.

This change manifests itself in two different ways.

On the one hand, the call for the legalization of cannabis is getting louder and louder. It forms part of a worldwide campaign to turn the ‘war on drugs’ into more effective means of breaking the power of drug barons and preventing and alleviating addiction, which also asks governments to consider the regulation of other types of recreational drug. This call is greatly aided by scientific studies that sort out the beneficial effects of drug use from the harmful effects, the more dangerous substances from the less dangerous, and the more sensible ways of consuming them from the more stupid ways. This is only possible because doing this kind of study in the first place is slowly gaining acceptance. In Britain for example, to publicly discuss consumption of hash has until recently been taboo. A show on Channel 4, based on research by Val Curran of UCL, shows this no longer to be the case now. (Coincidentally or not, at the time I visited their website a frozen-vegetable producer was advertising on it with the slogan ‘Stir your senses’.) In other countries, this process of acceptance has been going on for longer. In Uruguay, where both at-home and state-controlled production are now legal, it has even taken some definitive steps.

Interestingly, the same inquiring spirit has had quite the opposite effect on attitudes towards alcohol and nicotine, and to some extent even on caffeine. We are starting to get away from some of the deeply ingrained views on substances that made particularly alcohol a commonly accepted drug –  in many settings even an almost obligatory drug. Still, it firmly belongs in the category of ‘hard drugs’, in the sense that it induces physical dependence. The same applies to tobacco. This knowledge has been available for a long time (it is what I learnt at school), but state policies have only started to act on it more consistently over the past few years. In the Netherlands for instance, buying alcohol and drinking it in public have first been made illegal under age 16, and now up to age 18. Even though criminalisation is not necessarily the best remedy against the risks substances pose (this is the whole point of the cannabis story), at least these new policies give out a clear message that to drink and to smoke is no longer the norm, let alone a rule.

Our consumption habits are shifting. What we drink and smoke and sniff as a matter of course, is being challenged in the same way as the things we are not supposed to use. A knowledge that many people already possessed from experience, is now being formalized and improved by researchers. This article in the Lancet neatly summarizes current professional opinion about a range of substances and their harmfulness to both individuals and society. It shows how uninformed the legislation in most countries has been up till now. But, and this is the second important step, these researchers’ messages are now being listened to by politicians. Perhaps the generation of young Europeans that began (re)discovering certain drugs in the 1960s – drugs such as LSD and hash which have since been banned in most countries – are by now in a position to reassess this ban: as scientists, as intellectuals, as legislators. I am therefore optimistic (an unfashionable thing to be among historians) that this growing formal knowledge about the actual dangers of specific drugs will, during the coming years, continue to help reform law.

On a lighter note, this supermarket chain still ignores the dangers of two traditionally accepted drugs, in particular when combined:


If drinking gives you a headache, this may be the most effective way of selling painkillers in a supermarket.


Photos taken recently in British retail chain.

A real traveller?

Ever since the eighteenth century or thereabouts, travellers have carried an attitude commonly called ‘anti-tourism’.

Writers characterise others as Tourists: they are lazy, superficial, conventional. Tourists go on package tours; Tourists do not speak the local language; and all Tourists really want is a snapshot of themselves with the Great, Berlin or Hadrian’s Wall, which are as interchangeable to Tourists as the motel beds they sleep in.

It is not always acknowledged that this Tourist is a construction by these writers, an image, a personage. In real life, holiday travellers’ experiences are a great deal more complex.

Still, the image is an attractive one. It allows us to style ourselves different travellers: Real Travellers.

Charles Baudelaire, photographed by Etienne Carjat, 1863 (from Neue Zürcher Zeitung article).

Charles Baudelaire, photographed by Etienne Carjat, 1863 (from an article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung).

Charles Baudelaire is one of those writers who shaped our image of the Real Traveller. This is from his poem ‘Le voyage':

Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir; coeurs légers, semblables aux ballons,
De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s’écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!

In the translation by Geoffrey Wagner:

But the true travelers are they who depart
For departing’s sake; with hearts light as balloons,
They never swerve from their destinies,
Saying continuously, without knowing why: “Let us go on!”

Many of us will know the feeling this fragment evokes. The lightness it brings to leave one place, full of muddy memories and a thousand duties, and exchange it for another, fresh one. It’s a splendid feeling.

But Baudelaire does something besides describing this feeling: he sets those who feel it (‘vrais voyageurs’) apart from the rest. They are the wanderers, the wayfarers, for whom the journey is more important than the destination. Apart from the fact that this is a poetic distinction that does not exist in real life – often, the destination and the journey are both important, and the same people who have happy, ‘balloony’ feelings can also experience homesickness and anxiety – Baudelaire also chooses to set these people above the rest: those who are ‘fated’ to roam are more properly travellers than those who are actually going some place.

This tallies nicely with the rest of Baudelaire’s oeuvre, in which the protagonists are never able to find their place in the world, never satisfied, never at peace with their environment. Baudelaire himself, too, does not seem to have been very able to go somewhere and stay away for long.

It is flattering for Baudelaire as well as for ourselves to think of ourselves as the Real Travellers, especially when the activity mostly consists of dreaming of other places from the comfort of our own room, with little or no contact with the actual people and cultures we dream about.

But should we praise ourselves for our restlessness? To arrive is also an art. It is a fine romantic notion never to settle, but to depart on journeys, real or literary, has never been a particularly difficult task for the rich and male.

The hard part is staying in the new place: making do and adjusting one’s expectations and prejudices. It seems that Baudelaire did not find this pursuit worth much effort. But however wonderful some of the lines he wrote, we should not let ourselves be swept away by the authority exerted by romantic poetry. Perhaps, those who go somewhere and make an effort, however imperfect, to adapt to the new place – the Nigerian trader in Guangzhou, the Sudanese refugee in Amsterdam, the Mexican housekeeper in Los Angeles – perhaps they are the real travellers.

The standard work on anti-tourism is James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918 (Oxford, 1993). Geoffrey Wagner’s translations appeared in Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (New York, 1974). My biographical impressions were largely shaped by the chapter on Baudelaire in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel and Francis Scarfe’s introduction to his selected verse.

The perfect gift for…

Spring-time is here again (on the Northern Hemisphere). All over the world, countries get ready to celebrate Mother’s Day.

In Britain, a large household retailer has found a striking way of using this day to remind mothers of their duties.

shop window of large chain of household goods, 12 March 2015

Shop window of British chain of household shops, 12 March 2015.

It’s not altogether clear here who needs to get set: children, by buying a gift? Or mothers, by making everyone look their best on this festive Sunday?

Either way, we all know a happy mother is a mother dallying around the home. And her children are urged, by this shop, to help her remember in case she forgets.

Or should we assume that British mums are still pounding, rinsing and mangling their beloved’s blouses and bloomers by hand? In that case, they will be truly delighted with this gift, as it will open the way to an ocean of leisure. No better present imaginable.

If you are a particularly dirty child or spouse, you can even buy her three. Or give one to each mistress.

With thanks to my mother.

Ironing board will soon be obsolete

8 March is International Women’s Day. A day to think about the freedoms women and men have. And about the question: if these freedoms are unequal, how come? If even relatively rich, well-educated women are less happy in life than men, how come?

Photo of a Coleman's gas-heated pressing iron form the 1930s, by Sobebunny, 2010.

Photo of a Coleman’s gas-heated pressing iron form the 1930s, by Sobebunny, 2010.

A small contribution to an answer and a solution appears in today’s issue of Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, under the somewhat fanciful title ‘No More Dusting, Ironing or Hoovering’.

Through the Looking-Glass

Sometimes, taking a step back from what we do…



… or looking at it from the other side…


shop in the city attracting customers from a looking-glass world

City centre shop attracting customers from looking-glass world (thanks to JHMS for spotting first)

… might help us see things more clearly.

It’s what history does for us.