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Do You Know?

Did you know this was a very popular topic for cigarette card production?

Did you know Wills issued four series of Do you Know cards?

Did you know I used to groan inwardly everytime I saw a Do You Know card?

Why? You may well ask.

Actually it was simple, four series means 200 cards and everyone seemed to have accumulated these cards. In fact I have so many there are literally boxes of them which were never sorted. Sorting series which are so similar save for a little bit of script which determines they are series A, 2, 3 or 4 is not really my idea of a good way of spending a day, then or now.

Card 14 tells us why a dog turns around before lying down

However I picked up a set of cards the other day and you know what I am going to say:

I thought, I don't recognise these cards. Going through them the art work was very good, the cards were quality. The subject matter on the front of the cards was so varied I even wondered if it was a set or just an accumulation which had no right being in that particular draw. I turned the card over and horror, I had been found as a fraud. Years of prejudice fell away, there it was Wills, Do You Know.

So like all born-agains I am here to witness.

Feel free to escape from this page anytime.

The first of the Wills, Do You Know series was issued in 1922, series two arriving in 1924. Again there was a two year gestation period before series 3 in 1926. 1928 came and went without the 4th series being issued and so indeed did 1930 and 1932. The smoking public must have though three series was it but no, in 1933 Wills issued the fourth and final instalment of the cards. There was another installment Wills were having so much fin with the subject matter but this set was sadly never issued.

Diving into the reference books what do I discover, glowing words for this set of cards. Words like 'famous' were being used. Indeed one goes so far as to say, One of the most interesting of all issues was Wills' famous 'Do You Know?' There is that word again and notice the wording. This is not one of the most interesting issues Wills did it is one of the most interesting of all issues.

Wills explaining electric light (and blowing its own trumpet)

The clincher for me was the fact it mentioned the Plimsoll line, that strange looking sign on the side of ships. When I was six I read what this was, on a fact card at school,. I probably read 20 fact cards a day but this one (and one about lugworms) was the only one that stuck in my mind to this day. Oh actually there was one about Pepper's Ghost now I am thinking about it. Somehow those three subjects transport me back to a sunny afternoon in a poorly lit, high-vaulted Victorian school building. You know the type, massively thick walls painted establishment green, beaten desks and doors with glass so the headmaster can peep in at anytime.

Before anyone writes in, the building was not new when I was being taught. I'm not half as old as most of you think, well actually I might be that. Anyway I am not fond of schooldays, I disliked school and my mind has not softened enough to think they were anything other than a way of keeping me off the streets till I was old enough to pay taxes.

I am drifting from the point again sorry.

If you are anything like me (you have my sympathies) then a set like this is just a red rag to a bull. I am the tedious fool that has an interesting 'fact' for every occasion and then a few more that have nothing to do with the original conversation for good measure. Within moment tangents have occurred which the laws of physics suggest should not exist. Some of the more long suffering individuals on the update list could well have gathered.

Sense of humour?

Card 1 series 1: Do you know what 'A1 at Lloyd's means?'

I suspect the truncated form A1 is more popular nowadays. Well it is all to do with shipping insurance. A vessel made of the very highest iron or steel it is designated 100 A1. This and many more facts are jammed on the reverse of the card. That is not what is interesting. On the front of the card is a four funnel liner. I cannot imagine the artist would have put the Titanic on such a card, it must be another four funnel, but it is fun to think it is the Titanic.

Really it is impossible to do justice to 200 cards of such interest. I can only pick out cards at random for they all deserve a place in the article. Card 12 suggests the large bottles filled with strange coloured liquids which were so often a part of a pharmacist shop display have origins in the alchemists trade who used these gaudy displays as a way of impressing a foolish public. What changes? It has all become legalised with the introduction of prescription charges. I read somewhere that doctors do not give out placebo's any longer. Darn good job, lying about in the garden in British weather is not my idea of how to get healthy <bg>.

Flags at half mast.

Originally the victors flag was flown over the vanquished. At sea the sovereign is honoured by the dipping of the flag. It then became a custom for the flag lowered at half mast to denote the death of an important person. The imaginary flag of death flying above it.

The last person to be imprisoned for witchcraft in England under the 1735 Witchcraft Act was Helen Duncan. Arrested for 'conjuration' (the raising of dead spirits) Unbelievably it was in 1944. Enlightened as we are now she only got a nine month prison sentence.
The Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951 as a direct consequence of this lunacy.

The idea of horse shoes warding off evil spirits probably originated from the Roman custom of carrying crescent objects to ward of the same. How we laugh at those misguided people who actively believed in witchcraft. Just think what is under carefully applied, and mighty thin veneer of civilisation.

Interestingly a cartoon in a newspaper I read showed Blair and Clinton raising the national flags of Great Britain and the US. The US flag was flying high over the Union Jack. It made me smile but for all the wrong reasons.

Series Two:

In this one we get to learn how a fly walks upside down, why a Bishop wears a laced hat (historical not practical apparently) and closely related is the question of why flying fish fly (more than 40 species do this trick apparently.)

Card 47 clears up the mystery of what causes wind, no really. It is all to do with the land being warm and the sea cold. That is why it is always windy at the seaside.

Card 24 is just incredible. It has to be one of the longest heading on any single card. The question:

...why the Horse straightens its fore-legs first when rising, and the Cow its hind-legs? I will give you a few moments to ponder why on earth anyone has even noticed this let alone sought an answer. Now a few more moments to work out how on earth you are going to work this question into every day conversation.

The answer is given on the reverse of the card and reproduced in full here.

Details from Card
The wild ancestors of the horse used to roam the open grassy plains of Europe in vast herds. While resting among the tall grass, they would rise on their fore-legs at the first sign of danger and keep a sharp look-out. The Aurochs, or wild oxen, from which our domestic cows were descended, were creatures of the woods, surviving in the Black Forest down to Roman times. When danger threatened, they would rise on their hind-legs, their heads remaining low in order to watch under the trees for approaching enemy.

Hmmm, just how tall were these oxen? This sounds like something which is best explained with a poker straight face after a couple of pints of good strong ale, your chums might believe you then.

It also tells you why ladders often have numbers stamped into them. Simple, it is the number of rungs the ladder has. The rungs are usually between 8 and 9 inches apart it tells us. It always amazes me that such things are standardised. It also always amazes me whenever I have to have any plumbing work done etc anything I have is not standard size (please don't snigger, this is about cigarette cards not 1970's British comedy). Even the taps on the bath were further apart than anyone had ever seen before. Why me?

Card 44 is fascinating (to me), 'which is the Biggest tree in the World' I remember an old Guinness book of Records that showed a tree with a road running through it (I still have the book.). Anyway forget that. It turns out it is a tree growing at Tule, Oaxaca State, Mexico. The card tells us the tree is 154 feet in circumference and probably greater in girth than any other tree in the world. The card also tells us the tallest tree in the world. A fallen Sequoia gigantea in California had a girth of 112 feet and an estimate height on 450 feet. The card also says that the estimated age of some of these trees are seven or eight thousand years.

Now I cannot comment on trees I have never seen but here are the present facts: Guinness Book of Records: Greatest girth, tree at Tule, Oaxaca state, Mexico has a girth of 117.5 feet. I suppose it is the same tree but it seems to have been slimming, very modern. The difference might be accounted for the fact the measurement was taken from a height of five feet above the ground. Interestingly the tallest (estimated) was found in Australia in 1872 and had a standing height of about 500 feet. What were Wills up to? They even distributed cards in Australia so it is no excuse having the thing the other side of the globe.

The oldest tree was found (having fallen in 1977) which had an estimated age of 6,200 years. Try to imagine that for a living thing. Hell on earth, I never want to come back as a tree.

Series Three:

It kicks of with a marvellous explanation of 'Ancient Lights.' This is all to do with the Prescription Act of 1832 where if a window has had uninterrupted access to light for twenty years then it cannot be obstructed so as to make a building inconvenient or uncomfortable for business or work. The card says that sometimes the words Ancient Lights can be seen painted above windows that have acquired this privilege. It also says that buildings of empty plots of land sometimes put up hoardings to stop housing around about gaining 'Ancient Lights' which would put a wrinkle in their ability to build in the future.

Card 14 tells us why a dog turns around before lying down. After going on about horses and cows (not a promising start if you have been telling your friends about the series 2 card and been laughed out of sight) it finally gets down to business and explains that dogs used to live in areas of long grass and turning round and round flattens the grass before bedding down.

Card 26 is all about the horizon which explains the horizon is about 12 miles away for a man whose eyes are 80 feet above sea-level. About where mine are now (which, as Spike Milligan might have said, 'is something of a surprise to me as I am only 5'10'' tall.') Once my eyes return to a more natural height the horizon is only 3 miles away. Use this new found knowledge to pick holes in old naval movies.

Which is the true shamrock?

Now I was not aware there was a problem until I got to card 41 of series 3. There is though which only goes to show the path to true enlightenment is understanding you know nothing (the answer to a particularly tedious adventure game I am currently chewing through.) Gerard (1597) said the White Clove and the Purple Clover are termed Shamrocks. However by 1725 only the white clover cuts the mustard. This plant was worn on St Patricks day as late as the beginning of the last century (1800's)

Prof Sir E Ray Lankester throws a spanner in the works by claiming the Wood Sorrel is the true shamrock. However the Botanical Gardens, Trinity College, Dublin grows Lesser Clover as the true Shamrock and accepted as so by Irishmen. The card points out the Encyclopædia Britannica supports this.

I would like to also point out that these cards like just about every other lists the Latin names for all things botanical, all very clever.

Card 13 tells us all about the 'Flying Dutchman' In fact a Dutch sea captain, Vanderdecken who was condemned to sail the waters of the Cape of Good Hope because of his blasphemy. A lesson to all of us. It also gives the alternative legend of his ship in the rather less glamourous North Sea. This time rudderless he is destined to play die with the devil for his soul.

Card 48 explains how a violin string can produce so many notes. The Devil already knows.

Please do not laugh at me. I have a confession. Card 29 has opened my eyes, 'What a Loofah is?' When I was younger than I am today (I will let you know if I ever wake up any younger) someone told me a loofah was the backbone of a fish. Oh yes, a real laugh riot. Anyway imagine my surprise to discover it is a kind of cucumber. Once the fleshy parts have gone that thing you used in the bath is what is left. Apparently sometimes socks were made out of the stuff. Fine as long as you did not have a hole in your shoe.

Set four and the final set of this exceptional series deals with more of the same. Of particular interest is the card dealing with the origin of the name, Rotten Row. Of interest because a friend of mine leaves in a road called Rotten Row.

Well it is an old name and as such has at least two theories as to its origin. Rotten Row or The Row is a famous road in Hyde Park reserved for riding. Formerly known as Lamp Road or The Kings Old Road - the Route du Roi which if you squint and speak with a lisp may just about sound like Rotten Row on a windy day to a deaf man. The card points out an interesting aside, and draws to attention the sort of thing which England is rife with. The only subject of the King who is entitled to drive on the road is the Duke of St. Albans in his official capacity as Hereditary Grand Falconer of England. Now that is a bit of information not normally found on the tip of your tongue.

The second possibility is that Rotten Row is so called because of the soft soil of which it has been composed off since the middle of the 18 th Century.

This and more information than you can possibly shake a stick at is all on the cards and pretty inexpensive too.