Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Apple #427: A Christmas Carol

Here's another regular feature of Christmas: A Christmas Carol, originally written by Charles Dickens.

Frontispiece of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, from the book's first publication in 1843.
(Image from Open Books)

You all know the story -- the world's biggest miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, who warns him that he must change his parsimonious, skin-flint ways or risk spending eternity in hell carrying around a heavy chain forged by his own misdeeds. Scrooge scoffs. He is then visited in the middle of the night by three ghosts, each of whom show him his past, present, and future. He sees that, in his past, he was liked and he wasn't always a grumpy old goat. In his present, he sees that the people around him like his employee Bob Cratchit are struggling to get by because of his penny-pinchitude, and yet most of them still think of him kindly. In his future, he sees his own death. He wakes up from this series of visions grateful to be alive and ready to celebrate Christmas with a happy, generous spirit of giving to all those around him.

It's a tale of redemption. It's a tale of reform that is so popular because it hits us where we live. I think we all have a bit of the "Bah, humbug" in us at Christmas time and during the rest of the year, too. But we also have a bit of the Bob Cratchit in us, the long-suffering employee who is unappreciated and underpaid. So when Scrooge reforms and gives generously to Bob and his family in a way he has never done before, we are renewed and refreshed with along with Scrooge, even as we sigh hopefully that we will also be rewarded for our hard work and loyalty as Bob has. In short, it hits all the buttons of satisfaction and happiness and justice.

Dickens wrote it in 1843, in about a month. He wanted it to be published with hand-colored illustrations, to have gilt on the cover, and a good binding. His publishers were concerned that these extra embellishments would keep it from making enough money so he said, "Fine, I'll pay for all that myself," and he did. He also insisted that his publishers charge only 5 shillings a copy for it so that everyone who wanted one could afford it.

One of the hand-drawn, full color illustrations from the original. This is of Marley's Ghost visiting Scrooge.
(Image from A Christmas Carol in Project Gutenberg)

In the first few days, it sold 6,000 copies. That was not enough to make the book's publication profitable, but that no longer seems to matter. The story's popularity has only continued to grow since then.

The thing of it is, I'm willing to bet that most of us have never read the original, written A Christmas Story. I'm not saying this to shake my finger in admonishment but to demonstrate a point: This story has been told and re-told so many times and in so many ways, we all know it and could practically recite it in our sleep even though we've never read it.

It's been told in movies, in cartoons, in plays, in musicals, in other books. It's been shortened, the names of the characters changed, the time and the place altered. It's been set to music. Somewhere, there are probably a few mimes acting it out on a street corner.

There's even a Christmas Carol video game. Before each stage of a puzzle that requires you to match pieces, you get bits of the story.

You can download a free trial from Big Ant Games.

Even Dickens himself adapted his own novel. After its publication and subsequent popularity, he reduced it so it could be read in one sitting and gave dramatic public readings.

Fast forwarding to today, there is usually at least one version of the movie on TV in the weeks before and again on Christmas Eve.

This one, starring George C. Scott, is the most popular movie version
(Image from Popular Nostalgia)

One could even argue -- and I'm going to -- that another enormously popular Christmas movie, It's a Wonderful Life, is itself an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. George Bailey is desperate. The thing that has made him desperate is money -- not a nasty hoarding of it, but the serious want of it. An angel comes to visit him and takes him, not to the past, but to an alternate version of the present. In looking at this alternate present, George sees his contributions, which had little to do with money, and therefore himself in a new light. Consequently, he values himself and the people around him in a way he did not before, discovering the riches inherent in each of them, and as a reward, baskets of money are brought in and dumped on the table. It is another story of redemption, a true conversion of heart, occasioned by monetary issues, and facilitated by an otherworldly creature.

George Bailey, reinvigorated after having been guided through his own life by a spirit, just as Ebenezer was.
(Photo from Catholic Maine)

So I thought I'd see just how many versions of A Christmas Carol there are. Little did I know that one small question would bring forth such an avalanche of respondents. There are so many versions of the story, I cannot possibly include them all here.

I included movies -- ones with real people as well as animated ones -- TV shows, and theatrical productions. I left out books. I left out movie versions that were released only in the UK or Australia or France or Italy, etc. There was no way I could include every TV show that had a single episode that riffed on A Christmas Carol, so I included those which stood out to me for some reason -- they were especially bizarre, or have become well-known, or they include characters or actors whom you would never imagine in such roles.

I also included a relative smattering of plays and musicals. There are so many versions performed in so many places, I don't even really have a rhyme or reason to what I included and what I omitted. It is enough to say that what I have listed here is maybe 10% of what's really being performed out there.

I don't expect most of you to read every single item on this list. My main intent is to provide a very large buffet of versions for you to scan and note the occasional oddity that catches your eye. The number of silent movie versions, for example. The fact that there's a Barbie Christmas Carol. Dom DeLouise and Sheena Easton were in one of the animated versions together. Etc.

For those of you true-blue, hard-core Christmas Carol fans out there who have made it a point to see every single version you can possibly find, I hope I've identified at least one version that is new to you. But I doubt it. Because I know how dedicated some of you are.

All that said, here is my list of versions of A Christmas Carol. The list is in chronological order for each format, from oldest to newest.

Movie Versions

A Christmas Carol
(1908) 15 min. Silent.

A Christmas Carol (1910) 17 min. Silent.

The Right to Be Happy
(1916) Silent.

A Bit o' Heaven
(1917) Silent.

A Christmas Carol (1938) 69 min. Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, June Lockhart, Leo G. Carroll, Terry Kilburn.

Screen shot from the 1938 version with Reginald Owen and Ann Rutherford.
(Photo from Ferdy on Films)

A Christmas Carol
(1951) 86 min. Alastair Sim, Meryvn Johns, Michael Hordern, Glyn Dearman.

This one is my favorite. I especially like how Scrooge tells himself that the apparition that is Jacob Marley might have been caused by indigestion, "a bit of underdone potato," and giggles.
(Image from Cdron97's December blog)

Scrooge (1970) 115 min. Albert Finney, Sir Alec Guinness, Edith Evans, Kenneth More. Singing and dancing.

A Christmas Carol (1984) 100 min. George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Frank Finlay, Edward Woodward, Nigel Davenport. Amazon's ranked list of movie versions puts this one at the top.

Scrooged (1988) 111 min. Bill Murray, John Forsythe, Karen Allen, Carol Kane, Bobcat Goldthwait.

Bill Murray being his best smart-ass self. I like him better before he reforms.
(Screen shot from Other Kids Pack Lunch)

A Christmas Carol (1999) 93 min. Patrick Stewart, Nick Adams, Desmond Barrit, Charlotte Brittain, Tom Brown, Kenny Doughty, Laura Fraser.

A Carol of Christmas (2005) 101 min. Andy Pesek, Holly Pesek, Annamae Pesek, Sean Rocco, Chris Rocco, Timmy Rocco. Comedy filmed in Kansas City starring, apparently, screenwriter and director Andy Pesek's family.

A Christmas Carol (2010) no further information available yet.

Animated Versions or Versions with Puppets

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962) 52 min. Jim Backus, of course.

I've never seen this. How can the ghosts show colossally nearsighted Mr. Magoo his past and future? Sounds like a recipe for comedy....
(Image from Wikipedia)

A Christmas Carol
(1971) 28 min. Alastair Sim, Michael Hordern, Melvyn Hayes. Won an Oscar for animation in 1973.

Bugs Bunny's Christmas Carol (1979) 8 min. Mel Blanc, who else? Yosemite Sam as Scrooge.

Mickey's Christmas Carol
(1983) 26 min. Scrooge McDuck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Jiminy Cricket, Daisy Duck, Donald Duck.

Alvin and the Chipmunks (1983) one episode.

"A Keaton Christmas Carol" (1983) one episode of Family Ties. Alex P. Keaton as Scrooge.

The Jetsons Christmas Carol (1985) 30 min. Cosmo Spacely as Scrooge, Astro as Tiny Tim.

It's only available on VHS but it's considered collectible, so prices start around $14 on Amazon

John Grin's Christmas Carol (1986) Robert Guillaume (remember Benson?) as Scrooge.

Brer Rabbit's Christmas Carol (1992) 58 min. Christopher Corey Smith as Brer Rabbit.

The Muppet Christmas Carol
(1992) 89 min. Michael Caine, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzy Bear, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Huneydew.

Michael Caine is sort of tucked away in the background in this image. That's probably because the Muppets are the real stars of this movie -- or any movie that they're in, for that matter.
(Image posted by saribear at ohnotheydidnt)

A Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994) 90 min. Fred & Wilma, Barney & Betty, Pebbles & Bamm-Bamm, Dino.

(1995) Susan Lucci as Elizabeth "Ebbie" Scrooge.

A Christmas Carol
(1997) 72 min. Tim Curry, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael York, Ed Asner.

An All Dogs Christmas Carol
(1998) 73 min. Steven Weber, Dom DeLuise, Sheena Easton, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Nelson Reilly.

Christmas Carol: The Movie.
(2001) 77 min. Simon Callow, Kate Winslet, Nicolas Cage, Jane Horrocks, Michael Gambon, Juliet Stevenson. Starts live action but switches to animated.

The Muppet Christmas Carol: Frogs, Pigs, and Humbug--Unwrapping a New Holiday Classic (2002) 22 min. Michael Caine (archive footage, probably from the 1992 version), Paul Williams, Miss Piggy, Kermit (someone else does his voice), Brian Henson.

A Sesame Street Christmas Carol (2006) 46 min. Exists only on DVD. Tim Curry, narrator, Jim Henson as Ernie (archived voice footage), Frank Oz as Bert (archived voice footage), Bob McGrath (you know, Bob), Kristin Chenoweth. Oscar the Grouch as Scrooge.

Bah, Humduck! A Looney Tunes Christmas
(2006) Daffy Duck as Scrooge.

Barbie in a Christmas Carol (2008) Also only on DVD. I couldn't resist including this one.

(Photo from Barbie Movies Wiki)

"Dora's Christmas Carol" (2009) one episode of "Dora the Explorer." Swiper the Fox as Scrooge. Santa and his reindeer show up, too.

A Christmas Carol (2009) IMAX 3D. 98 min. Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins.

This version looks like a souped-up madcap Disney special effects 3D bonanza. It uses performance capture animation in 3D. Apparently it made $31 million the first week it opened, but I haven't heard or seen much about it.
(Image from

TV Versions

A Christmas Carol (1943) 60 min. William Podmore. At the time, it was the longest play ever broadcast on television.

A Christmas Carol (1947) John Carradine, Eva Marie Saint (the woman who played opposite Cary Grant in North by Northwest). This was her TV debut, and it was less hip than the one she starred in 17 years later.

A Christmas Carol (1949) 25 min. Vincent Price, narrator, Taylor Holmes, Jill St. John, lots of TV actors from the days of Bonanza and thereabouts.

Story of the Christmas Carol (1955) 29 min. Norman Gottschalk, Eugene Troobnik, Gretrude Breen. I did not make up these names.

Carol for Another Christmas (1964) 84 min. Eva Marie Saint, Ben Gazzara, Steve Lawrence, Peter Sellers. Written by Rod Serling. In this version, the Scrooge-like guy never recovered from the death of his son killed in action in 1944. The son was played by Peter Fonda, but his scenes were cut before release.

Peter Sellers played Imperial Me, the guy in charge in this version's post-apocalyptic future.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

Rich Little's Christmas Carol (1978) 55 min. Rich Little performs every role.

An American Christmas Carol (1979) 98 min. Henry Winkler.

Skinflint: A Country Christmas Carol (1979) 120 min. Hoyt Axton, Barbara Mandrell, the Statler Brothers.

A Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre (1979) 120 min. Ron Bishop. Film of a play performed at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.

A Christmas Carol (1981) 110 min. William Paterson, Raye Birk, Lawrence Hecht.

A Christmas Carol (1982) 87 min. John Gielgud as the narrator, Marshall Borden as Charles Dickens, Richard Hilger as Scrooge. Play filmed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988, BBC) 43 min. Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Miranda Richardson, Steven Fry, Hugh Laurie. Black comedy.

Combom, a self-professed movie addict and fan of Blackadder's recommends this one.
(Photo from We Love Movies)

T-Bag's Christmas Carol (1989) (UK) Elizabeth Estensen as Tallulah Bag, a.k.a. T-Bag. My reasons for including this are obvious.

A Christmas Carol (1994) (UK) Ballet starring Jeremy Kerridge and Ron Vitalia.

Bah, Humbug! The Story of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" (1994) 58 min. Live dramatic reading of the story. James Earl Jones and Martin Sheen do all the voices.

"A Solstice Carol" (1996) one episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. You can watch the episode at

A Diva's Christmas Carol (2000) 120 min. Vanessa Williams as Ebony Scrooge, Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, Kathy Griffin. VH1 adaptation includes a mini VH1 Behind the Music episode about Ebony Scrooge.

A Carol Christmas (2003) 120 min. Tori Spelling as Carol, William Shatner uses a Star Trek teleporter to transport Carol about, Gary Coleman as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Who decided to put these three people in a movie together?
(Photo from Love

A Christmas Carol: The Musical (2004) 97 min. Kelsey Grammer, Jesse L. Martin, Jane Krakowski, Jason Alexander, Jennifer Love Hewitt. Imagine all these people singing and dancing.

"Michael's Wonderful Life" (2008) One episode from The Young and the Restless in which Michael Baldwin sees what would have happened if he had never been born. It's a version of a version.

Musical or Theatrical Versions not available on film

This list of theatrical performances can't even come close to representing the number of theatrical productions that go on each year across the United States and around the world. Chances are, wherever you happen to be, some theater company near you is orobably giving a performance of it.

Raton Art & Humanities Council and Santa Fe Trail School's combined performance, at the Shuler Theater in Raton, NM
(Photo from the Raton Art & Humanities Council)

A Christmas Carol (1974) Musical comedy. Written and directed by Ira David Wood III. Still being performed in at Theatre in the Park, Raleigh, NC.

A Christmas Carol (1981) Musical. Premiere performance in 1981 at the Hartman Theater, Stamford, CT. Doesn't look like they're still doing it there, though.

A Christmas Carol (1983) Theatrical. Adapted by Jeffrey Sanzel, who also plays Scrooge. Still being performed at Theatre Three, Port Jefferson, NY.

A Christmas Carol
(1988) Musical. Alan Semok as Scrooge. Still being performed by The Chatham Players in Chatham, NJ.

The Gospel According to Scrooge (1986) Musical. Often performed by Christian church groups.

A Christmas Carol
(1988) Dramatic reading. Patrick Stewart reads and re-enacts the story.

Scrooge!: A Dickens of a One-Man Show
(1991) Adaptation and one-man performance by Kevin Norberg.

Scrooge: The Musical
(1992) Musical. Adapted from the 1970 film, performed in Britain by Anthony Newly.

A Christmas Carol (1995) Broadway musical. Lyrics written by Alan Menken. The cast recording is available on Amazon.

A Christmas Carol (1995) Theatrical. Adapted by Tom Haas. Characters address the audience. First performed more than 25 years ago; continuously running since 1995 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis, IN.

How it looks in Indianapolis
(Photo from Indianapolis Events Calendar)

A Christmas Carol
(1997) Musical. Performed from 1997-2000 at the Players Guild Theatre in Canton, OH. Scheduled to be revived December 2009.

A Christmas Carol
(2003) Adaptation and one-man performance by Greg Oliver Bodine.

Steve Nallon's Christmas Carol (2003) Adaptation and one-man performance by impressionist Steve Nallon as famous characters appearing in the story.

A Christmas Carol (2003) Theatrical. Starring Ben Roberts. Performed in 2003 and revived in 2006 at the Derby Playhouse in Derby, England.

A Christmas Carol (2006) Theatrical. Adaptation by Ron Severdia. Performed at the Barn Theatre in Ross, CA. Toured Europe in 2007.

A Christmas Carol 1941 (2007) Theatrical adaptation. Set during World War II.

A Christmas Carol (2007) Theatrical. Performed by the North Coast Repertory in San Diego, CA.

A Christmas Carol ("annual ritual") Theatrical. Michael Haley as Scrooge, featuring the Hampshire Young People's Chorus, sets painted by local artist Amy Johnquest to evoke the streets of Northampton. At the Academy of Music Theatre, Northampton, MA.

Emmy winner Michael Haley as Scrooge in Northampton
(Photo from the Academy of Music Theatre)

A Christmas Carol (2009) Theatrical. Adapted by Lezlie Wade and Kevin J. Etherington. A new version this year, starring Terence Kelly as Scrooge, at the Carousel Theatre, Granville Island, Vancouver.

A Christmas Carol (2009) Theatrical. Performed by the Le Quoy Duong Company in English with Vietnamese subtitles. The company will be touring five major cities in Vietnam: Hanoi, Hue, Danang, QuyNhon, and Ho Chi Minh City. (For more information see LookatVietnam)

Do you have a favorite version?

David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page, A Christmas Carol
International Reading Association, Read Write Think, Selected List of Video/Film Versions of A Christmas Carol
IMDB, results for "christmas carol"
Wikipedia, List of A Christmas Carol Adaptations

Websites of individual theatre companies

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Apple #426: Candy Canes

Continuing with my Christmas-themed topics, I was thinking the other day about candy canes. They are everywhere. They're so pervasive that I don't think I even like them anymore.

But I had the feeling that once upon a time, there were no candy canes. Where did they come from? How did they get to be so common?

Candy canes are everywhere
(Photo from the Candy Snob)


All the sources I found on this tell the same story, almost exactly word for word. I'm at least going to paraphrase to try to make it interesting.

  • Long ago -- I'm talking 1600s -- people used to decorate their Christmas trees with everyday, homemade stuff. Actual candles. Cookies. Candy.
  • One of the things people made at Christmas time were straight, white sticks of sugar candy. Now, most relate this fact in connection with Christmas-tree decoration, but I fail to see how the straight sticks of candy could be hung on the tree. Maybe they were propped up there? Or maybe it was candy that people made along with the other types of candy that they did put on the tree.
  • Then, sometime in the 1670s, a choirmaster in Cologne, Germany got an idea. In anticipation of the very long Christmas mass, he made those straight candy sticks, but he bent them into the shape of shepherd's crook, and then he passed them out to the children who came to Christmas mass and were sitting around the creche. He wanted to keep them entertained and quiet and sitting still throughout the mass.

One example of a creche (pronounced kresh). In living creches, actual people -- often children -- act out the parts of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, etc.
(Photo from Franciscan Friars)

  • This isn't in other people's histories of the candy cane, but I'm going to bet that that choirmaster didn't have much experience with children. I mean, giving children a bunch of sugar to get them to sit still? Great idea.
  • But the larger point here, for our purposes, is that he meant the candy cane to resemble a shepherd's crook. Since the children were described as sitting around a creche, I'm thinking he meant the candy canes to evoke the shepherds who saw the star and followed it to the manger.
  • In 1847, a German guy named August Imgard who had emigrated to Wooster, Ohio, decorated his Christmas tree with the white, bent candy canes in order to entertain his nieces and nephews. People who visited his house liked his candy canes much, when they went home, they made their own, experimenting with recipes.

The shepherd's crook shape makes it even easier to hang candy canes on the Christmas tree.
(Photo from Rafter Tales)

  • For another 60 years, the candy canes were still all white -- until about 1900. Christmas cards until about that time depict candy canes that are bent and white, but they are not striped.
  • Christmas cards sent after 1900 depicted candy canes that were red and white striped. Also about the time the stripes showed up, candy makers began adding flavorings like peppermint and wintergreen.
  • Nobody knows for sure who made the first striped candy canes, or why they chose red and white. Perhaps it was some industrious and creative housewife who first came up with the idea and other people followed suit?
  • Or perhaps it was some guy named Bob McCormack, who lived in Albany, Georgia. In 1920 he mass-produced a bunch of candy canes, wrapped them in cellophane, and handed them out to friends and relatives all over the place. (But since he made them by hand, I'm wondering if he had some servants or somebody helping him.) He liked making the candy canes so much and was so good at it, he made a business out of it -- Bob's Candies, which are still made today.
  • In the 1950s, Bob's brother-in-law, a Catholic priest named Gregory Keller, made a machine to automate the production of candy canes. I think it was this invention that contributed to the candy's pervasiveness.

Bob and Gregory also used patented boxes like these that keep the candy canes from breaking.
(Photo from Treasure Island Sweets)


While that story about the choirmaster in 1670 is told over and over and over again, at the same time, people seem to forget about the shepherd's crook, and they advance countless other theories about what the candy cane represents.

The candy cane: sweet, sugary treat, or secret religious symbol?
Short answer: it's candy
(Photo from Weeping Cherries)

Here are only a few of the symbologies that people have suggested:
  • The cane shape is actually the shape of a "J" and stands for "Jesus"
  • The white represents the purity of Mary, or the virgin birth of Jesus
  • The white and the peppermint hearken back to hyssop, which was an herb used in the Old Testament and which symbolized purity
  • The red represents the blood of Jesus that would be spilled during his crucifixion
  • The stripes represent the stripes Jesus would receive when he was scourged
  • The three stripes -- where people get three, I'm not sure, unless they're looking at those types of candy canes that also have a tiny green stripe -- represent the Holy Trinity
  • The hardness of the candy represents the "rock" that is the church.
  • Candy canes were a way that oppressed Christians in the early church used to communicate with each other. (This is historically impossible.)

You can believe any or all of that if you want to. But really it's all bunk. It's candy in the shape of a shepherd's crook.


Until Gregory Keller made his machine, everybody made their candy canes by hand. Now, candy canes are produced in huge batches by a process that I find rather interesting.

  • It all starts with sugar. Refined sugar, corn syrup, glucose, and sometimes molasses are the primary ingredients in candy canes.
  • The sugar is pumped into the kitchen from storage tanks. (I include this bit of information because there used to be a Wonder Bread factory where I live and I maintained that the trucks that pulled up to it and attached a hose to the side of the building were pumping in the dough. I was scoffed at for this assertion, but I really think that's what was happening. If they pump in the sugar for candy canes, why can't they pump in the ingredients for bread?)
  • Salt is added, too. There's not enough that you can taste it, but as most cooks know, a little salt helps balance out sweet things.
  • There's also some water in there, too.
  • All this stuff is stirred together in a great big kettle, which is heated to 300°F and then kept hot so that the syrup will melt and boil.
  • Giant, automatic paddles stir the hot syrup and help it to thicken.
  • Once it's the right, amber color and it has thickened enough, while the syrup is still hot, workers pour the syrup across tables. The tables have been cooled with water, which helps the syrup cool a little faster.
  • The cooling syrup is then sent into the kneaders and pullers. The machines have arms that knead and stretch the candy, similar to the way taffy is stretched, until it turns a silky white color.
  • During the stretching process, workers add flavoring. Usually those flavorings are the traditional peppermint oil or wintergreen oil. Sometimes colorings are added, but only to color the white portion. The colors for the red or green or other stripes are added later.
  • Once the syrup has been colored and flavored and stretched enough, another worker cuts the giant cooling blob of syrup into big hunks of about 95 to 100 pounds each. The worker then shapes the 95-pound hunk of sugar into a loaf shape about 1 foot by 2 foot.
  • Depending on the plant, workers may slice off pieces from a loaf and set it aside, or they may make smaller stripes separately from the loaf. In either case, these smaller pieces are dyed the color of the stripes -- in most cases, red.
  • The colored stripes are then pressed in intervals on top of the big loaf.

Workers at the Spangler candy plant handling one of the giant loaves of candy that has had its color stripes added.
(Photo from Spangler candy)

  • The striped loaf is then put into another machine, either a batch roller or an extruder. This machine keeps the loaf hot enough that it can be shaped, and it stretches and rolls the loaf into one long strand that is the width of a candy cane.
  • The long strand is then twisted so that the stripes don't just go up and down but twist around the cane.
  • Immediately following the twister is the cutter, which slices the long, now-twisted strand into candy-cane lengths.
  • The twisty-striped but stick-straight candy pieces then go into the wrapping machine, which encloses the candy in shrink wrap. Because the candy is still warm, the shrink wrap sticks to the cane and is sealed.
  • The wrapped candy now goes into the crooker, which bends the still-warm candies into their distinctive shape.
  • The candies are then finally cooled and boxed and, after inspection, shipped out.

Some of the extruders that stretch the big loaf into a long skinny strand can manipulate more than 2,000 pounds of candy per hour. That's how easy it is to make a lot of candy canes pretty fast.

Making this many candy canes, with today's machinery, is cake.
(Photo from Lollipops & Candies, Inc.)

Mary Bellis,, History of Candy Canes
Laura Witcher Goldstein, The History of the Candy Cane
Snopes, Candy Cane
Phantom Fireworks, History of Candy Canes
essortment, History of the candy cane
Old Time Candy, Bob's Candy
Spangler Candy, Candy Cane Tour
How Products Are Made, Candy Cane

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Apple #425: Poinsettias

I just bought two poinsettias, one for home and one for my office. I didn't go for the usual red; I chose pink with gold sparkles. That sounds awful, but they're actually quite pretty.

(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • People all across North America will buy an estimated 75 million poinsettias this Christmas season -- or roughly $300 million.
  • Nearly all of them are sold during a six-week period around Christmas.
  • 80% of poinsettias sold each year are red. 20% are other colors.

You can order a red poinsettia like this one, and have it delivered to Romania, if you order it from Romanian Roses. It'll set you back a mere $57.77.

  • The first cultivars, or varieties, that had different colors of leaves were produced by separating genetically mutated sprouts, or sports, and growing them to be their own separate plants. More recent new colors are produced by cross-pollinating plants of differing colors, collecting the resulting plant's seeds, and growing new plants from them.

Greenhouse technicians care for the thousands of poinsettias in varieties of all sorts that are displayed at Rutgers' George H. Cook campus greenhouse each year.
(Photo from Rutgers)

  • Poinsettias are the best-selling potted flowering plant in the United States.
  • But the things we think of as flowers are actually leafy bracts. The bracts change color, like most plants' leaves do, when the amount of daylight lessens in the fall.
  • The true flowers are tiny yellow blossoms tucked deep among the leaves. They have no scent.

The flowers are the tiny little things in the center of the colored leaves.
(Photo from Our Ohio)

  • The poinsettia is native to Mexico, but they grow throughout Central America.
  • It is named after a guy named Joel Poinsett who was John Quincy Adam's Ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s. Besides being an ambassador and a congressman, he was also an amateur botanist.
  • One of his jobs while he was in Mexico was to try to deal with the fact that they were having a civil war. But he is best remembered for the fact that he saw a plant with big red leaves and liked it so much, he took some cuttings home to his greenhouse in South Carolina. (Here's what wild pionsettias look like -- very different)
  • Poinsettias are not poisonous. Even if you eat your weight x 10 number of leaves, you might only start getting a stomach ache.
  • But the taste is said to be horrible, so you'd really have to persevere to eat that many leaves.
  • The plants do ooze a milky sap, which may irritate your skin.
  • When I brought my plants home, I noticed something white and gooey on a few of the leaves that looked and felt like hand lotion. I assumed that someone in the store where I'd bought them had accidentally sprinkled lotion on them. Must have been the milky sap. Apparently I'm not allergic to it.
  • If your pets eat the plant, the sap may make them throw up a lot or get diarrhea. But it's not going to kill them. So says the ASPCA.
  • Left to grow naturally in the tropics, some poinsettias can grow to be 10 feet tall.

These white poinsettias are sold by Paul Ecke Poinsettias and they come in a special polar bear container. For every one of these sold, Ecke Poinsettias will make a donation to Polar Bears International to support conservation.

Choosing a Poinsettia

  • plants with dark green foliage all the way to the soil
  • bracts that are colored all the way out to the edges
  • plants that are 2.5 x taller than the container's diameter
  • Look at the center of a cluster of bracts where the flower clusters grow. If you can see very little yellow pollen, choose that one.

  • drooping or wilting
  • fallen or yellowed leaves
  • lots of green around the bract edges
  • plants that have been crowded together
  • wet soil and wilted plant -- a possible sign of root rot
  • If there is yellow pollen on and around the little flowers, the plant will drop its bracts very soon.

The flowers on this poinsettia are fully open and there is a sprinkling of pollen on the surrounding leaves. Best to choose a different plant to take home.
(Photo by Old Shoe Woman, sourced from Flowers Florist Information Directory)

Taking Care of a Poinsettia
  • They like warm temperatures -- remember, they came from Mexico -- ideally, somewhere between 55°F at night and 70°F during the day.
  • They don't like cold drafts, so keep them away from drafty windows or doors.
  • When you're taking it home, wrap it entirely in a bag. Cold drafts even for a few minutes can make the plant drop its leaves.
  • They don't like really high temperatures, either, so don't put them right next to a furnace register.
  • As for lighting, they prefer indirect lighting for about 6 hours a day.
  • Southern exposure windows are not good places for poinsettias because the sunlight will be too direct and it's likely to be drafty.
  • If the leaves start turning light green, give them more sunlight.
  • Water only when the soil is dry.
  • Take off the foil wrapper or punch holes in the bottom, and put the container in a saucer to allow excess water to drain out. Empty the saucer.
  • If water stays in the pot, the plant will probably get root rot.
  • Fertilize the plant about once a month. This will help make it last beyond Christmas.
  • If the little flowers are blooming, don't fertilize it. Wait until the blooms are wilted.

Oh, dear. I've chosen plants that were crowded together, and it was really cold and windy when I carried the plants home, and I watered them. I suppose they're right now dropping their bracts all over the floor downstairs.

More signs I chose wrong -- the leaves aren't darkly colored all the way out to the edges, and some of the bracts are curling up. I should've consulted the Daily Apple before I went to the store.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

University of Illinois Extension, The Poinsettia Pages
Steve Whysall, Getting your poinsettia across, National Post, December 5, 2009
Smithsonian Institution, Poinsettia Fact Sheet
The Gardeners' Network, How to Grow and Care for Poinsettias

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Apple #424: Reindeer

I'm thinking I might do some Christmas-related entries. I don't know yet if every entry I do this month will be about a Christmas topic. That might get a bit tiresome. Or we all might enjoy it. We'll see. But for right now, I'd like to talk about reindeer.

A reindeer, doing one of the things reindeer love best -- eating.
(Photo from the Polar Trec)

  • Reindeer are semi-domesticated caribou. They are the only type of deer that has been domesticated.
  • Reindeer were domesticated some 7,000 years ago, longer ago than the horse.
  • They're very similar to their cousins the wild caribou, but they are a bit smaller, they have shorter legs, and their fur is lighter colored.
  • They live on the tundra in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, northern Russia and norther Asia. In the lower 50 states, breeders keep herds fed on commercial feed and raise them in places as far south as the Midwest, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas.

This male reindeer, the Rock, lives in Lake Crystal, Minnesota.
(Photo from Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association)

  • Reindeer's hooves are broad and flatten out, which makes it easier for them to walk on top of snow or soft ground.
  • Their hooves are also good at digging down through the snow to the grass beneath.
  • They can run fast. Their thick fur, which traps and insulates air, also makes them good swimmers.
  • They like to eat lichen, and they eat a lot of leaves (birch and willow are their favorites) and grass, and mushrooms. They eat 12 pounds of plants each day.

Reindeer, headin' down the highway. Probably looking for more food.
(Photo from the Wonderopolis)

  • I'm amazed that this is all they eat because they can weigh between 200 and 600 pounds.
  • Reindeer live in herds, which may vary in size from 20 deer to thousands. The herd is always traveling, searching for more green food for everyone to eat.

This reindeer herd lives in Sweden.
(Photo by Mats Andersson)

  • They really hate flies and they will seek out breezy places, shorelines, or high peaks to get away from them in the summer. In the winter, though they tend to seek shelter, they also look for open spaces where the wind might have blown the snow off the grass.
  • The males have a white furry mantle around their necks called a mane. They also get a little chin beard.
  • Both the male and female get antlers each year. 
  • The males lose their antlers in winter, but the females keep theirs all through winter until they give birth in the spring.

This is George. He lives near Palmer, Alaska. You can see the velvet on his antlers. Velvet is a furry skin with blood vessels that covers the antlers until they are fully grown and hardened. When the antlers are hard enough, around August, the reindeer will rub off the velvet and the males will fight each other.
(Photo from Reindeer Farm's Photostream)

  • Of course the males fight each other with their antlers. In the fall, their necks swell up and they get protective of the females and aggressive with each other. They'll fight and work out who belongs with whom for a few months.

Very blurry photo of males fighting. It's hard to make out the details, but it gives you the sense of the herd as well as the fight.
(Photo from Microkhan)

  • The males will mate with a harem -- this is the word the sites use -- of about 5 to 15 female reindeer.
  • In the spring, when the female is ready to give birth, she leaves the herd and finds a secluded spot somewhere not too far from the summer grazing area. Each year she's pregnant, she'll come back to that same spot to give birth.
  • The reindeer is born in late May or early June, weighs 11 to 20 pounds, and stands within minutes of birth.
  • At one day old, a reindeer can outrun a grown man.

A reindeer fawn named Thunder, only a few days old, from Knoxville, Tennessee
(Photo from Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association)

  • The fawn's coat is not speckled with camouflage but looks the same as its parents.
  • The fawn will grow really fast, so that by the time it is only four months old, it will weigh about 90 pounds.
  • Young deer will start growing antlers at one year old.

Female reindeer and fawn, both with antlers. Since the fawn's are just sprouting, it's probably about a year old.
(Photo from Wonder Club)

By the way, the reindeer names in the song are
  • Dasher
  • Dancer
  • Prancer
  • Vixen
  • Comet
  • Cupid
  • Donner
  • Blitzen
  • Rudolph
But I think real-life reindeer are cooler than the ones in the song.

Bear Country USA, Reindeer
Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association, Reindeer Info
Wonder Club, Reindeer
Enchanted Learning, Reindeer
Reindeer Learning Zone

Friday, December 4, 2009

Apple #423: Spleen

I've been hearing people mention the spleen a lot lately. On The Young & the Restless, Chance got recently knifed in the spleen (if you want to see video of this, I've posted them at the end of this entry). Then somebody made a joke during a football game about a player getting his spleen knocked out of him, and I forget now where else I heard it, but it was too many occurrences to ignore. Especially since, how often do you hear people talk about their spleen? Time to do an Apple on it, thinks I.

  • The reason you don't hear about the spleen very often is that, even among medical folks, the spleen gets kind of overlooked.
  • Spleens can rupture pretty easily during traumas -- sports injuries, car accidents, bizarre knifings in coffee shops. The spleen's default state is to be packed with blood. So when it gets punctured, it bleeds like crazy. So most trauma surgeons just take the whole thing out rather than try to fix it.
  • People seemed to survive the splenectomies just fine, so doctors thought, eh. It's a spleen. You can live without it so it must not be that big a deal.
  • They're finding out now that the spleen is more important than they'd realized.
  • The spleen normally holds an enormous number of a special kind of immune cell called monocytes. Monocytes are the largest of white blood cells and they help to fight infection. They can gang together to form uber-infection-fighters called macrophages. Macrophages are especially good at helping to mend heart tissue. In fact, they remove dead heart tissue, build newer and more stable scar tissue, and stimulate the production of new blood vessels.
  • If you get suffer some sort of traumatic and serious injury or a heart attack , the spleen opens the floodgates and shoots millions of those monocytes & macrophages to the site of injury.
  • One study back in the 1970s found that WWII veterans who had been de-spleened were more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than those who had not. Researchers weren't sure why this would be the case, but the fact that the spleen makes all those monocytes is probably what kept the veterans with spleens better protected against heart disease.
  • Besides helping to protect against heart injury, the spleen also does a lot of filtration.
  • Blood circulates through the spleen, not through a series of capillaries which is how blood usually travels through organs, but it gets poured into little pools called sinusoids. To get back out of the sinusoids, the blood has to squeeze out through the cell walls that line the sinusoids.
  • The squeezing filters out bad stuff like blood-borne parasites. Since older and more brittle red blood cells won't bend to fit through the cell walls, those older blood cells get filtered out, too. However, the iron and other goodies in the old red blood cells do make it through the sinusoid walls, so it becomes available for younger and healthier blood cells to pick it up. Pretty cool, eh?

Cross-section of the spleen. The red pulp is where the sinusoids are, and this is where the blood filtration takes place. The white pulp is where the lymph is.
(Diagram from Web Books)

  • The spleen also works as part of your lymphatic system. Lymph is a clear fluid which contains proteins, sugars, salts, and urea -- good and bad stuff both.
  • Lymph is constantly being produced by your body, and it circulates throughout your body in your blood vessels. It's like a liquid balancing act. It keeps liquids from building up too much in one place but from getting depleted elsewhere. Also as it circulates, it collects stuff your body doesn't need and carries good things your body does need to help repair it. It's like a two-way cleaning system.
  • Something has to clean the bad stuff out of the lymph, and the spleen is one of the things that does that. It also adds monocytes to the lymph and sends it back out again.
  • So where is this miraculous little doo-dad and what does it look like?
  • Normally, it's about the size of your fist. Its shape looks like a fist too, but more of a relaxed fist, not clenched.
  • This makes it about the same size as your heart, but it's a lightweight by comparison. The spleen only weighs about 4 or 5 ounces, while your heart can weigh between 7 and 15 ounces.
  • It's purple because of all the blood hanging out and getting filtered through it.
  • It lives under your rib cage in the upper left part of your abdomen toward your back.

People often show the spleen as sitting behind your stomach, but it doesn't have any interaction with your stomach or digestive system.
(Diagram of spleen from Why Does My Spleen Hurt?)

  • Besides getting ruptured, a spleen can also get enlarged, for any number of reasons. Especially bad infections can do it, liver disease, inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, and some forms of cancer. Because it's so tucked away, doctors sometimes can't tell if it's enlarged just by feel and they may want to do some sort of scan.
  • If the spleen is enlarged, it's likely the doctor will recommend removing the spleen. I'm not sure why this is except that they don't seem to understand enough about how the spleen works to know how to repair it. Rather than risk an enlargement getting worse and causing more problems, they'll want to take it out.
  • These days they can do remove the spleen laparoscopically, which means they will only make small holes in the abdomen, slide their instruments and a camera in through the holes so they can see what they're doing, snip the spleen free and put it in a special little bag, and draw it out through the largest hole.
  • One of the things they do when removing a spleen is look around for more of them. 15% of people have additional, smaller spleens. You would think this would be an indication that a spleen is pretty important, since your body is making extra ones. But if you're having your spleen removed, chances are, the doctor is going to take out the little extra ones too, if you have any.
  • This brings me back to the prevailing notion that spleens are of secondary importance in the body. This opinion about the spleen may date all the way back to medieval medicine.
  • People used to think there were four humours, or fluids, floating around in your body. They were blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. If you had too much of one of the four, your personality would be so influenced by the nature of that particular humour.
  • Too much blood and you were sanguine, or optimistic and happy. Too much phlegm and you were phlegmatic or listless. Too much yellow bile, also called choler, and you would be angry and hot tempered. Too much black bile and and you would be melancholy.
  • Galen, a Roman physician living in 200 A.D., decided that black bile came from the spleen. He saw the spleen as working in a support role to the liver, a much larger organ, and that it helped purify things for the liver. So, not that big a deal in its own right, but important only for what it could do for the liver.
  • The whole black bile = melancholy thing wasn't dispelled by Galen's theory about the spleen, but was in fact expanded on. People then started to say, if you were melancholy or depressed, that meant not only that you had too much black bile but that your spleen was working too hard, or you had too much spleen.
  • Despite many medical advances, the whole idea of the humours persisted for a long time and even persists in our language today. We still call people bilious or sanguine, though we have other ideas now for why they're feeling truculent or happy. But we have also seemed to hold onto the notion that the spleen is a secondary and therefore dispensible organ.
  • Finally, there's a rather famous poem written by Charles Baudelaire, a Parisian poet who lived from 1821 - 1867. During that time, people were very big on the whole humours theory.
  • He wasn't exactly a happy man, but was in fact rather brooding and melancholy. One of his better-known poems is called, simply, Spleen.


When the low, heavy sky weighs like a lid
On the groaning spirit, victim of long ennui,
And from the all-encircling horizon
Spreads over us a day gloomier than the night;

When the earth is changed into a humid dungeon,
In which Hope like a bat
Goes beating the walls with her timid wings
And knocking her head against the rotten ceiling;

When the rain stretching out its endless train
Imitates the bars of a vast prison
And a silent horde of loathsome spiders
Comes to spin their webs in the depths of our brains,

All at once the bells leap with rage
And hurl a frightful roar at heaven,
Even as wandering spirits with no country
Burst into a stubborn, whimpering cry.

— And without drums or music, long hearses
Pass by slowly in my soul; Hope, vanquished,
Weeps, and atrocious, despotic Anguish
On my bowed skull plants her black flag.

(translation by William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil, 1954)

  • Not exactly the cheery, is it? But I think the spleen is actually quite cheery. It's your own personal hospital, rushing ambulances to the site of injury. It's purple. It cleans your blood. It helps fix damaged heart tissue. It's a little fist of life! Hooray for the spleen!

Chance getting knifed in the spleen. Or somewhere. Starts at 8:47.

Natalie Angier, The New York Times, Finally the Spleen Gets Some Respect, August 3, 2009
Mayo Clinic, Englarged spleen (splenomegaly)
Teens Health, Spleen and Lymphatic System
Cynthia Graber,
Scientific American, Spleen Gives Heart a Leg Up, August 4, 2009
Web Books Publishing, Human Physiology, Lymphatic System
WebMD, Enlarged Spleen
SAGES, Patient Information for Laparoscopic Spleen Removal, March 2004
Stanford, A History of the Liver, Spleen, and Gall Bladder
Wise Geek, What are the Four Humours?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Apple #422: How Water Softeners Work

I know, upon your return from your Thanksgiving break, the first thing you wanted to know about is . . . water softeners. You've been burning with curiosity, even waking up in the middle of the night asking yourself, how do those dang things work?

Well, maybe you haven't. But my friend Bob who just had surgery asked me to find out about them. He didn't want me to find out about gall bladders or surgical implements or nurse's scrubs. No. What he asked me about is water softeners. So, for Bob, here's how water softeners work.

In a nutshell, water softeners take hard water and make it soft. But we must crack that nutshell and ask, what is “hard” and “soft” water?

Hard Water

Out in the great wide world, water travels over rocks and through soil. As it does that, it picks up stuff. Of the stuff it collects, what we’re concerned with here are minerals, two in particular: calcium and magnesium. Water that has lots of calcium and magnesium in it is considered hard water.

Generally speaking, hard water can make life harder. Because of the calcium and the magnesium, it’s harder to get stuff clean. Your water heater has to work harder and it might get clogged up by those minerals. The rest of your house’s plumbing could get could get clogged by those minerals, too.

This is what hard water can do to pipes and fixtures, over time.
(Photo from Tommy Dorsey Water Conditioning)

Water that’s been softened has had most or all the calcium and magnesium removed. Most municipal water suppliers soften their water at least somewhat before sending it through their water lines to your house.

But many people do still have hard water. One source estimates that 75% of homes have hard water. I’m a bit skeptical of that percentage. It might be more accurate to say that 75% of homes have some degree of hard water. Like so many things, whether or not your house has hard water may not be a simple yes/no situation.

You can tell your water is hard if
  • After you wash the dishes, there are white filmy spots on them
  • The glass in your shower stall is frequently coated with a white film
  • Your clothes seem stiff and soapy-feeling even after you’ve washed them
  • You notice a white scale or even crystals in the little filter traps over the faucets
  • Instead of forming a nice, happy foam, soap tends to form a sticky, lumpy curd

One of the telltale signs of hard water
(Photo from eHow)

Here’s one layperson test you can do to get a good indication of hard water-ness:
  • Find a bottle that has a cap you can close and fill it about half full of water
  • Squeeze in about 10 drops of dish washing soap
  • Close the cap tightly & shake.
  • If the solution in the bottle makes a happy foam right away, you don’t have to worry about hard water.
  • If, however, the solution doesn’t get foamy but instead makes a soapy film on the inside of the bottle or even forms a lumpy curd, you’ve probably got hard water.

If you think you have hard water, the next question is, how hard is it? To find that out, you’ll need to have someone come and do a water analysis for you. Any place that sells water softeners will be happy to analyze your water for free – because they think they’ll be able to sell you a water softener afterward. Look in the Yellow Pages under “water analysis” to find someone near you, or for a slower response, you can contact your state's certified water testing laboratory.

A professional water analysis will give you a magic number that indicates how hard your water is, or how much calcium & magnesium is in it. The magic number is usually expressed in terms of grains per gallon (GPG), or if you’re going with the British units, milligrams per liter (mg/l).

Here’s the scale, in GPG, of water hardness:
  • Less than 1.0 = soft
  • 1.0 – 3.5 = slightly hard
  • 3.6 – 7.0 = moderately hard
  • 7.1 – 10.5 = hard
  • 10.6 and up = very hard

Knowing this magic GPG number is important because it will help you decide, first of all, if you need a water softener. If it's in the 7.1 and up range, you'll probably want a water softener. Below that, it's more a matter of personal preference than concern for the clogs that might build up in your pipes or water heater.

You'll also want to know this magic GPG number if you decide you do want to purchase a water softener. More on this later.

How Water Softeners Soften

Of course if you're going to get a water softener, or if you already have one, you'll want to know how they work. All water softeners have three basic parts, a mineral tank, a brine tank, and a control valve.

In this labeled photo, they're calling the mineral tank a resin tank. This photo is pretty big and I think this is an older model softener, but I wanted you to be able to see all the components.
(Photo from somewhere in the Family Handyman)

The mineral tank is hooked up to your house's water supply. Inside the tank are lots of little plastic beads. They’re made out of polystyrene and they’re called zeolites. But they’re kind of like little balls of Styrofoam. You know how those balls of Styrofoam will cling to just about anything? That’s because they have a negative charge and they’re looking for anything to fill in those missing electrons.

The hard water – which is water plus calcium and magnesium – goes into the mineral tank. The calcium and magnesium are both positively charged, so those polystyrene beads just love that calcium and magnesium. The C and Mg love them back, so much so that they will leave the water to cling to the polystyrene beads. This process is called ion exchange. But really, those minerals are so fickle.

Without the C and Mg, the water continues on, softened. Softened water feels different than hard water—slippery, almost slimy.

Softened water will also often taste salty, and that’s because of the next part of the process, the regeneration cycle.

Once enough water has passed through the mineral tank that the polystyrene beads are covered with calcium and magnesium, you either have to replace the beads or else get that calcium & magnesium off of them. It’s easier and cheaper to strip off the minerals. The main purpose of the regeneration cycle is to strip the minerals and thus make the polystyrene beads usable again.

In the first phase of the regeneration cycle, softened water is flushed back through the mineral tank to wash out any debris that might have collected in there and make the tank clean and ready to be used again. This is known as the backwash phase.

In the backwash phase, softened water is flushed through the mineral tank to wash out any nasties.
(Diagram from the Family Handyman)

The second phase – the recharge phase – starts in the second tank, the brine tank. This has a bunch of really salty water in it. Like the calcium and magnesium, sodium also has a positive charge, so the beads will like the sodium, too. The salty brine is flushed back into the mineral tank where the beads are and, though the positive charge of the sodium is weaker than that of the calcium and magnesium, the sheer volume of the sodium ions is strong enough to knock the calcium and magnesium off the beads and take their place.

During the recharge phase, salt water (brine) is flushed from the brine tank into the mineral tank to wash the calcium & magnesium off the polystyrene beads in the mineral tank.
(Diagram from the Family Handyman)

Once the beads have had time to swap partners thoroughly so that they're covered with sodium ions instead of the C and Mg, the mineral tank is flushed out and the old brine solution goes down the drain, as do the calcium & magnesium. The brine tank is then refilled so it's ready for the next regeneration cycle.

When the next batch of hard water enters the mineral tank, it will encounter those polystyrene beads that are covered with sodium ions. Since the incoming calcium & magnesium have a stronger positive charge than the sodium and since they’ll now outweigh the sodium, the calcium & magnesium will knock the sodium off and cling to the polystyrene. Thus all batches of softened water after the very first one will have sodium ions floating in it, and will taste salty.

The control valve, or timer, keeps track of this whole regeneration cycle and directs the water into the appropriate tanks at appropriate times. Depending on the type of water softener, the control valve might make the regeneration cycle happen on a regular schedule, regardless of how many of the beads are spoken for. With these types of control valves, softened water is not available during the recharging phase.

Other types of control valves are more sophisticated. They have sensors that can tell when the polystyrene beads are all full of calcium & magnesium and will begin the regeneration cycle automatically. Still others have a water meter to measure water usage and will initiate the regeneration cycle based on how much water has entered the mineral tank to begin with. These more sophisticated types of control valves will allow for a reserve of softened water so that some will be available even during recharging.

Purchasing a Water Softener

Water softeners are built to handle various levels of grain capacity (meaning grains of minerals you want to remove from the water) and water usage levels. But it's a bit confusing figuring out what size you need for your house.

Most water softeners fall in the 20,000 to 1,000,000 grain capacity range. To understand what this means for you, divide the grain capacity of the softener by the hardness of your water.

That's that magic GPG number you got when you had the water analysis done. Here's the table of grains per gallon one more time:
  • Less than 1.0 = soft
  • 1.0 – 3.5 = slightly hard
  • 3.6 – 7.0 = moderately hard
  • 7.1 – 10.5 = hard
  • 10.6 and up = very hard

Let's say you can get a good price on a 40,000 grain capacity softener, and your water has a hardness level of 8. Dividing 40,000 by 8 = 5,000, which means that the 40,000 grain softener working with your hard water will produce 5,000 gallons of water per cycle.

But is that a lot or not very much? To understand what that means for your house, you also need to calculate your home's water usage.

  • The average person uses about 50 gallons per day. Multiply that by the number of people in your house. This tells you the absolute minimum number of gallons per regeneration cycle you'll need your water softener to produce.
  • Say you have 3 people in your house. Multiply 3 x 50 gallons per day = 150 gallons per day is the minimum amount of water your house needs.
  • So a water softener that can handle 5,000 gallons in a house that only uses 150 gallons per day seems like overkill, right? Not exactly. That 5,000 gallons is how much the water softener produces before it has to run a regeneration cycle.
  • Dividing the 5,000 gallons it produces by the minimum 150 gallons we need tells us that it should be 33 1/3 days before this water softener will have to go through a regeneration cycle. In other words, it would have to run a regeneration cycle about once a month. And according to what water softener salespeople say, that's about right.
  • If the water softener you're considering runs on an automatic timer, which means you can't have any softened water while it's recharging, you'll probably want the softener's capacity to be larger so it doesn't have to run a regeneration cycle quite so often.

As far as how much to expect to spend, one site that's maybe a couple years old said that most water softener systems cost in the $800 to $1500 range, plus installation which is an extra $300 to $500.

After that, the ongoing costs are just electricity to run the system and monthly salt expenses which should not exceed about $2.50 per person in the household, or about $10 for an average family.


  • Generally, you should check your water softener about once a month to make sure the brine tank has enough salt in it. The brine tank's salt level should be about half full.
  • Sometimes the salt on the bottom of the tank dissolves but the top forms a kind of crust. It looks like there's enough salt in the tank but really the amount is lessening. To find out if that's the case and to break up the salt bridge if one did form, poke a blunt sort of tool like a broom handle into the salt. Be careful not to push too hard because you do not wan tto puncture the tank.

How to break up a salt bridge
(Diagram from Morton System Saver)

  • If you've added more salt to the brine tank, give the softener some time before you expect it to work as it should. It will take a while for the salt to dissolve.
  • You also want to make sure the brine tank is refilling with water properly. One gallon of water will dissolve 3 pounds of salt. So at least 3 gallons of water should be in the brine tank.
  • Finally, you want to make sure the brine tank is clean. Gunk may build up on the floor of the brine tank, and you'll want to clean that out of there every so often.

A good water softening system can last for a decade or two without much more maintenance than this.

What Kind of Salt to Use

A lot of water softener owners want to know if it makes a difference what kind of salt they put into their brine tank.

Some water softeners are designed to work specifically with one type of salt. Read the manual to see if any products are specifically recommended and go with that. If the softener allows you to make a choice, here are your options.

Three types of salt are generally available: rock salt, solar salt, and evaporated salt.
  • Of these, rock salt is the cheapest, but because it's still in the form of big crystals, it will take a lot longer to dissolve in the tank. It also contains a lot of other impurities & gunk besides salt. That gunk is going to collect at the bottom of your brine tank and you're going to have to clean that out more often.

Rock salt, in somebody's water softener brine tank. Hopefully you can see how the rock salt is crystalline.
(Photo from

  • Solar salt was originally seawater from which the moisture was removed. It's about 85% sodium chloride (NaCl). It will have some impurities in it, but not as much as rock salt. It's usually sold as crystals so it will need some time to dissolve, but again, not as much as rock salt.
  • Evaporated salt is salt mined from underground and from which the moisture is then evaporated by gas- or coal-powered plants. It's 99% sodium chloride with very few impurities. It's the most expensive of the three varieties, but it will also leave behind the least amount of gunk in the brine tank. If you use your water softener a lot and thus go through a lot of salt, evaporated salt is the recommended choice because it will require you to do the least amount of clean-out.

Solar salt and evaporated salt both get compressed into pellets like these.
(Photo from Anglian Salt)

If you're going to change the type of salt you use, wait until the salt you've been using is all gone before you switch. Mixing salts won't break your softener or do terrible damage, but using one kind at a time will keep any problems from occurring.

Should I Use Potassium Instead?

There are some problems associated with creating all that salt water. First, your drinking water will taste salty. For some people, especially those with high blood pressure, this can be quite an issue.

Here's how salty a water softener makes your drinking water:
  • Initial Hardness -- Sodium Added
  • 1.0 grains per gallon -- 7.5 milligrams/quart of water
  • 5.0 grains per gallon -- 37.5 milligrams/quart of water
  • 10.0 grains per gallon -- 75.0 milligrams/quart of water

To put this in perspective, 1 tablespoon of ketchup has 204 milligrams of sodium.

Most people solve the salty taste problem by putting a filter (Brita or some such) on their kitchen tap. But other people can't even have that much extra sodium in their diet.

Another issue with sodium is related to the brine discharge. Most places that have hard water aren't on a municipal sewer line but use septic systems. You do not want your septic tank to back up or quit working, no sir. But all the sodium in the brine discharge can screw up the bacteria count necessary to make septic systems work. This is enough of an issue that municipalities like Fillmore, CA and even entire states like Michigan, Texas, and Connecticut, have banned sodium-based water softener brine discharge.

All that sodium can also screw up the salt levels in your nearby watersheds -- rivers, marshes, what have you -- which means it makes it harder for plants to grown in that area and it changes the environment in which a lot of fishes and frogs and creatures live and breathe.

Another option besides sodium (NaCl) is potassium chloride (KCl). It's about three to four times more expensive than salt, but it won't mess with your septic tank, it won't change the fresh water surrounding your house to salt water, and it won't make your drinking water taste salty.

If you decide to make the switch from salt to potassium in your water softener, first make sure that your water softener's manual doesn't say it won't work with anything but salt. Second, make sure you've got all the salt out of the brine tank before you switch it over to potassium.

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Thomas Klenck, How it Works: Water Softener, Popular Mechanics, August 1998
Bob Formisano,, Water Hardness Testing
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Alpha Water Systems Inc, Frequently Asked Water Softener Questions
National Small Flows Clearinghouse, An Alternative to Softening with Sodium
Hamburg Township Wastewater Treatment Plant, Sodium Chloride Issues and Sodium Chloride and Water Softeners