History Book – From Common Sense to Coco Chanel

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD History Book. 

This week, a popular pamphlet, the beginning of the U.S. oil boom, and farewell to a fashion icon. Here’s WORLD senior correspondent Katie Gaultney.


KATIE GAULTNEY, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Today, information spreads quickly. An email blast reaches thousands; a tweet goes viral. But 245 years ago, on January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine relied on the printing press to spread his revolutionary ideas. And the message—from his pamphlet Common Sense—spread like wildfire. 

COMMON SENSE: Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness…

That excerpt, offered by Librivox, demonstrates Paine’s wariness of anything but an egalitarian form of government. Paine—a recent English immigrant—penned a harsh critique of George III and inspired the colonies to sever ties with England. Peter Thompson of the University of Oxford simplified Paine’s point. 

THOMPSON: Government should be the servant of the people, not its master. And over time, gradually, the English constitution has developed into this ravening monster which oppresses the ordinary man and woman in the street and is fundamentally corrupt. 

With its incendiary prose—structured much like a fiery sermon—the message caught on quickly. Colonists read it aloud at taverns, coffeehouses, and meeting places. Kathleen Burk of University College London talked to the BBC about its wide reach. 

BURK: It was published up and down the seaboard, it was published in Europe, in London to Vienna to Moscow. 

Historians estimate that adjusting 1776 sales to our modern population, the pamphlet would have sold 150 million copies by today’s numbers. In fact, it’s still in print today, and it remains the all-time best-selling American book. 


“There’s oil in them hills…” or rather, that coastline. On January 10, 1901, the top blew off of Spindletop, an oilfield well in Beaumont, Texas, near Houston. It rained oil at an estimated rate of 100,000 barrels per day before it was capped. Spindletop author and historian Jo Ann Stiles put it in context: 

STILES: Literally in that one gusher at Spindletop, we outproduced the Russian oil fields for the year in a matter of 10 days, and it made the United States number one in the world in terms of oil production…

With Spindletop’s enormous output, America entered the oil age. With the Texas oil boom, burning petroleum as fuel for the masses made economic sense. 

Troy Gray is the director of the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum. He said the time was right for a long-term impact.

GRAY: When the oil came, this was at a time when cars were invented and they were choosing between electric-powered cars and gas-powered cars. Because of the sheer amount of oil they found in Beaumont, that put us on the map and everyone wanted a piece of it. 

Tens of thousands of oil prospectors called “wildcatters” rushed to the Texas town, causing the population to triple in just three months. 


Traveling from the oilfields of Texas now to the streets of Paris. 


French designer Coco Chanel died 50 years ago yesterday. The couture pioneer rose from poverty to create a fashion house that changed women’s clothing. Her signature style—black, white, pearls and simple, elegant trims with a nod to the nautical—became the look for the well-heeled Parisienne. 

In this 1959 interview, she called imitation the sincerest form of flattery. She counted fashion industry imitators as evidence of her own success and influence. 

But before her surname became synonymous with style, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was the daughter of an itinerant peddler and a laundress. She dreamed of the stage, singing in cafes and cabarets, where she began using the nickname Coco.

Chanel’s fashion empire expanded to include not just clothing, hats, and accessories, but jewelry and fragrances, too. Her signature perfume, Chanel No. 5, remains one of the world’s most iconic scents. A bottle of it sells every 30 seconds. Celebs from Nicole Kidman to Brad Pitt have hawked the famous fragrance. 

PITT: Chanel No. 5… Inevitable. 

But of course, death, too, is inevitable. Chanel died at age 87 at her home in Paris, after carrying on her typical daily activities. She was feeling unwell and went to bed early on the evening of January 10, 1971. Her final words, spoken to her maid, were, “You see, this is how you die.” 


That’s this week’s History Book. I’m Katie Gaultney.

(AP photo) Gabriel “Coco” Chanel, back in the fashion world after a lapse of 15 years, relaxes in her book-lined studio above her Paris salon April 21,1954. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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