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Secrets in plain sight

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This week’s column is one of my serendipitous ones. It concerns things we see often but never really notice, or if we do notice, never give a second thought.

Elsewhere in today’s Observer, there is an item about an auto accident last week at the corner of Woodland and Kearny Aves. Along with a light pole, a bollard was knocked off its base.

It was one of the 21st century-design bollards, straight up and down and flat on top, though still circular. I say “still” because the classic bollard was always round and topped by a ball shape. Have you ever wondered why? I shall explain. Do you care? I shall explain anyway, being one of those people fascinated by history-related trivia. If you are not, skip the rest of this column.

It was in London where I first encountered street bollards (more and more of which, by the way, are being installed in our towns, usually at potential accident sites).

In London, they all resembled cannons with a cannonball stuck in the top. Turned out, that’s exactly what they were – and many still are.

The story is that, after the Napoleonic Wars, which finally ended in 1815, British forces had captured and brought back to Blighty so many French cannons that no one could figure out what to do with them all. And the British arms manufacturers weren’t too happy with an instant surplus of imports.

Then someone with imagination had the bright idea:

Upend the things, stuff a cannonball in the muzzle and use them to block horses and carriages from certain byways and pedestrian paths. Later, the French weapons were joined by Crimean War cannons.

To this day, the cannons stand as sentinels against London traffic. And to this day, despite more stylized designs, newly manufactured ones often mirror the cannon- and-ball: Circular with a ball on top. (Which also discourages loiterers from sitting on them.)

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We mentioned horse-drawn vehicles, which brings us to another bit of history/trivia.

Have you ever wondered why most hearses have stylized silver ‘S’ bars on the rear side panels? (Have you even noticed that they do? Next time, look!) Technically, the bars are known as landau panels and they hearken to the days of horse-drawn hearses.

One story is that they represented the S-shaped silver shanks on the side of the horse’s bit. But I’ve also heard that they reflect the curved rods used to lower the top of a horse-drawn carriage. In any case, they can be read as a silent tribute to yesteryear.

(If there is yet another explanation, let me know.)

Trivial subjects, to be sure. Which is why this sort of thing is called “trivia.” I hope you have been enlightened and perhaps inspired to be more observant and curious.

Because if we don’t know what we’re looking at, we don’t know what we’re looking at.

– Karen Zautyk

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