The Luffa and the Wompom

In the NYT Magazine on Sunday (July 28th), a “Who Made That?” column (by Pagan Kennedy) on the Loofah Mitt. That leads us to the Luffa plant, source of a vegetable and also loofah sponges. And that takes us to the incredibly multifunctional plant the Wompom, as celebrated in song by Flanders and Swann.

The beginning of Kennedy’s piece, with illustrations added:

“They were in great demand,” wrote a journalist named Nell Cusack in 1893 about a recent New York fad. Word had spread about a curious natural sponge that made the skin glow. Young ladies began using it to scrub their faces, often with so much enthusiasm that they turned as red as lobsters, Cusack joked. No one seemed able to agree on how to spell the name of that sponge, but it inspired such a craze, Cusack reported, that she expected to see “a ‘loafer,’ ‘luphar,’ a ‘loopa’ or a ‘loofah’ in every wash basin the land.”

(#1)

Only a few decades before, the loofah was used mainly to take the black off of teapots. Then came the late-century craze for “friction baths.” According to the medical wisdom of the time, vigorous scrubbing drew poisons out of the body. Women scoured their skin with tools like the “hair mitten” or the “Turkish mitten” (both of which were often made of mohair), as well as stiff-bristled “flesh brushes” that looked as if they belonged in a shoeshine box. The husk of the luffa gourd, which was harvested from a tropical vine, seemed particularly suited to the job — its tangled fibers could impart a healthy glow without chafing.

There was one problem: The loofah sponge, about the size of a rolling pin, was difficult to wedge into certain spots, like behind the ear. So a bit of ingenuity was needed. Judson S. Snyder, of Brooklyn, sewed fiber from the loofah into a device resembling a sock puppet and filed for a patent for the Improved Bathing Mitten in 1889. (Though Snyder patented the idea, he was not the first to innovate with loofah sponges — the plant had been used for centuries by people around the world.)

(#2)

Now, about the source of loofahs. From Wikipedia:

Luffa, Vietnamese luffa, Vietnamese gourd, or Chinese okra are a genus of tropical and subtropical vines classified in the cucumber (Cucurbitaceae) family. In everyday non-technical usage the name, also spelled loofah, usually refers to the fruit of the two species Luffa aegyptiaca and Luffa acutangula. The fruit of these species is cultivated and eaten as a vegetable. The fruit must be harvested at a young stage of development to be edible. The vegetable is popular in China and Vietnam. When the fruit is fully ripened it is very fibrous. The fully developed fruit is the source of the loofah scrubbing sponge which is used in bathrooms and kitchens as a sponge tool. Luffa are not frost-hardy, and require 150 to 200 warm days to mature.

The name Luffa was borrowed by European botanists in the 18th century from the Egyptian Arabic name … lūf.

(#3)

The Luffa plant is dual-purpose. Flanders and Swann’s Wompom is a true multi-purpose plant. A performance here:

 (#4)

The lyrics, for your appreciation:

You can do such a lot with a Wompom,
You can use every part of it too.
For work or for pleasure,
It’s a triumph, it’s a treasure,
Oh there’s nothing that a Wompom cannot do.

Now the thread from the coat of the Wompom
Has the warmth and resilience of Wool
You need never wash or brush it,
It’s impossible to crush it
And it shimmers like the finest sort of tulle.

So our clothes are all made from the Wompom;
Modern Gowns, Sportswear, Lingerie (Going up)
They are waterproof and plastic
Where it’s needed they’re elastic
And they emphasise the figure as you see.

Hail, to thee blithe Wompom.
Hail, to thee O Plant!
All-providing Wompom.
Universal Aunt!

You can shave with the rind of a Wompom,
And it acts like a soapless shampoo.
And its root in little doses
Keeps you free from halitosis
Oh, there’s nothing that a Wompom cannot do,
Nothing that a Wompom cannot do,
Nothing that a Wompom cannot do.

Now the thick inner shell of a Wompom
You can mould with a finger and thumb.
Though soft when you began it
It’ll set as hard as granite
And it’s quite as light as aluminium.

So we make what we like from the Wompom,
And that proves very useful indeed.
From streets full of houses
To the buttons on your trousers
With a Wompom you have everything you need.

Gaudeamus Wompom,
Gladly we salute!
Vade mecum Wompom,
Philanthropic Fruit!

Oh, the thin outer leaf of the Wompom
Makes the finest Havana cigar
And its bottom simply bristles
With unusual looking thistles
But we haven’t yet discovered what they are.

You can do such a lot with a Wompom,
You can use every part of it too.
For work or for pleasure,
It’s a triumph, it’s a treasure,
Oh there’s nothing that a Wompom cannot do.

Oh, the flesh in the heart of a Wompom
Has the flavour of porterhouse steak.
And its juice is a liquor
That will get you higher quicker
And you’re still lit up next morning when you wake.

Wompom! Wompom!
Let your voices ring!
Wompom! Wompom!
Evermore we sing!

To record what is what in a Wompom
Needs a book twice as thick as Who’s Who
I could tell you more and more about this fascinating flora
You can shape it, you can square it,
You can drape it you can wear it,
You can ice it, You can dice it,
You can pare it, You can slice it,
Oh there’s nothing that a Wompom cannot do!
Nothing that a Wompom cannot do!
Nothing that a Wompom cannot do!

Delightful stuff.

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