|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
E live," continued Uncle Paul, "on the life of our
domestic animals. The ox gives us his strength, his
flesh, his hide; the cow gives us her milk besides. The
horse, the ass, the mule work for us; and when death
overtakes them they leave us their skin for leather
with which to make our footwear. The hen gives us her
eggs, and the dog places his intelligence at our
disposal. But if there is one animal that, more than
another, comes to us from the good God above, it is
surely the sheep, the gentle creature that yields us
its fleece for our garments, its skin for our warm
coats, its flesh and its milk for our nourishment. But
its most precious gift is its wool.
"From wool are made mattresses, and it is also woven
into cloth such as merino, flannel, serge, cashmere,
and in short, all the various fabrics best fitted for
protecting us from the cold. It is by far the most
desirable material for wearing apparel, cotton,
notwithstanding its importance, coming only second, and
silk, valuable though it is, being very inferior in
respect to serviceability. More than with anything else
we clothe ourselves with what we strip from the
innocent sheep; our finery comes for the most part from
 "But wool is very far from beautiful on the creature's
back," commented Claire; "it is all matted and dirty,
often fairly covered with filth."
"It must take a good many processes," remarked Marie,
"to change that foul and tangled fleece into the
beautiful skeins of all colors with which we embroider
such pretty flowers on canvas."
"Yes, indeed, very many," rejoined Uncle Paul. "I have
you how sheep are washed and sheared,
and how the washing leaves the fleece white or brown or
black according to the color given to it by nature.
White wool can be dyed in all possible tints and
shades, from the lightest to the darkest, whereas brown
or black wool can take only somber hues. White wool,
therefore, is always preferable to any other; but,
beautiful as it is when freshly washed and relieved of
all impurity, it is still far from having the snowy
whiteness so desirable if it is to remain undyed. It is
bleached by a very curious process which I will now
describe to you.
"You have all doubtless observed that when sulphur
burns, with a blue-violet flame, it gives forth a
pungent odor that irritates the mucous membranes of the
nose and throat and causes a fit of coughing."
"That must be what we smell when we light a match,"
Claire interposed. "If you breathe in the least little
whiff of it, it is perfectly horrid."
"Often enough it has me coughing unless I was on my
guard," remarked Emile.
"Yes, that is it," their uncle replied. "Sulphur,
 in burning, becomes an invisible substance which is
dissipated in the atmosphere and betrays its presence
only by a detestable odor of the most pungent quality.
Invisible, impalpable, like the air itself, this
something that we know merely as a disagreeable smell
constitutes nevertheless a real substance the existence
of which cannot be doubted by any one who has once been
thrown into a fit of coughing by inhaling it. It is
called sulphurous oxide, a new name to you and one to
be kept in mind. It will be worth your while to
remember it, as you will presently see."
"Sulphurous oxide, then," said Marie, "is burnt
sulphur; and it is something that can be neither seen
nor felt, but that nevertheless does really exist.
Whoever breathes it is immediately convinced of its
existence by the penetrating odor and by the fit of
coughing that follows."
"To what possible use," continued Uncle Paul, "can we
turn this disagreeable gas, this invisible substance
that makes you cough worse than if you had the
whooping-cough? I will tell you. Despite its repulsive
qualities, it is what we have to depend upon for giving
wool the whiteness of snow. An example will demonstrate
its efficacy to you. Go down to the meadow and pick me
a bunch of violets."
The violets were soon gathered from under the hedge
bordering the meadow. Then Uncle Paul put a little
sulphur on a brick, set it afire, and held the bunch of
violets, which he had slightly sprinkled with water,
over the fumes. In a few moments the flowers, attacked
by the sumptuous gas
ascend-  ing from the blue flame, lost their color and turned
perfectly white. The change from violet to white was
plainly visible to the eye.
"How curious that is!" exclaimed Jules. "Just see how
the violets whiten as soon as they come over the flame
and feel the sulphurous dioxide, as you call it. Some
were half white and half blue; but the blue has
disappeared and now the bunch is all white, without
having lost any of its freshness to speak of."
"Let us now," suggested Uncle Paul, "try one of the red
roses there on the mantelpiece."
Accordingly the rose was held over the burning sulphur,
and its red color faded away just as the blue of the
violets had faded, giving place to white, much to the
wonder of the children, who watched with breathless
interest this marvelous transformation.
"That will suffice for the present," Uncle Paul
resumed. "What I have just shown you with violets and
roses might be demonstrated with innumerable other
flowers, especially red and blue ones: all would turn
white on being exposed to the sulphur fumes. You will
understand, then, that these fumes, which we call
sulphurous dioxide, have the peculiar property of being
able to destroy certain colors and hence to act as a
"If, therefore, you wish to bleach wool, to remove the
slight natural discoloration that stains its whiteness,
you proceed exactly as you have just seen me do with
the violets and roses. In a room with all its doors and
windows carefully closed the wool in
 its natural condition —that is, before it has
been spun into yarn—is hung up and a good handful
or two of sulphur is set on fire in an earthen bowl.
The room then becomes filled with sulphurous oxide and
the wool turns a beautiful white."
"Would wool that is naturally brown or black turn in
that room full of sulphur smoke?" asked Marie.
"No," was the reply; "its color is too fast to yield to
the action of sulphurous oxide. Only white wool is
subject to this action, under which it becomes
immaculate. By the same process the straw of which hats
are made is bleached, also skins used for gloves, and
"Wool varies in value according to the different kinds
of sheep that have produced it, some being coarse, some
fine and silky, some made of long hairs, and some of
short. The most highly esteemed, that which is used in
weaving fine fabrics, comes from a breed of sheep
raised chiefly Spain and known as merino sheep.
Finally, a goat native to the mountainous countries of
central Asia, the goat of Cashmere, furnishes a downy
fleece of extreme
 fineness, an incomparable wool from which the most
costly stuffs are manufactured. This goat wears, under
a thick fur of long hair, and abundant down which
shields it from the rigors of winter and is shed every
spring. At that season the animal is combed and the
down is thus detached separate from the rest of the
HEAD OF MERINO RAM
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