Many ubiquitously loved goods and commonly used things were invented in the South and by Southerners. Test your trivia knowledge and see if you knew the origin stories of these nine fabulous Southern inventions.
9 Southern Inventions That Will Likely Surprise You
#1. Grocery Stores
America’s first true self-service grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, was founded in Memphis, Tennessee, by Clarence Saunders in 1916. Back then, shoppers would give their orders to clerks who would then go gather everything from the shelves. The dynamic and innovative Mr. Saunders noticed that this method wasted time, money and resources. When he developed this way for shoppers to serve themselves, many doubters called his idea crazy and said it would never succeed. Who’s laughing now!? According to their website, “The Pig” was the first to:
- Provide checkout stands
- Price mark every item in the store
- Give shoppers more for their food dollar through high-volume/low-profit margin retailing
- Feature a full line of nationally advertised brands.
- Use refrigerated cases to keep produce fresher for longer
- Put employees in uniforms for cleaner, more sanitary food handling
- Design and use patented fixtures and equipment throughout the store
- Franchise independent grocers to operate under the self-service method of food merchandising
#2. Soft Drinks
You probably know this tidbit about Coke, but there’s more. Dr. John Stith Pemberton, a pharmacist, soldier, and inventor, created Coca-Cola in 1886 in Atlanta, Georgia. He had invented many syrups, elixirs, and medicines before this, so when Atlanta banned alcohol consumption in 1885, he removed the wine from his “French Wine of Coca” formula. He then added sugar, citric acid and essential oils of many fruits to the drink, and the original Coca-Cola was created, named for its coca leaves and kola nut. Its popularity, of course, quickly bubbled and overflowed. Did you know that Southerners are also responsible for these popular soft drinks?
- Barq’s Root Beer was invented in Biloxi, Mississippi.
- Cheerwine was invented in Salisbury, North Carolina.
- Double Cola was invented in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
- Mountain Dew was invented in Knoxville, Tennessee.
- RC Cola was invented in Columbus, Georgia.
#3. Cotton Candy
It may surprise many of you to find out that cotton candy was invented by a dentist. The delightful, sugar-spun treat was invented in 1897 by William Morrison (the dentist) and John C. Wharton (a local candy maker) from Nashville, Tennessee. While it’s easy to jump to the joke that he wanted more cavities to fill, Morrison was also a lawyer, author, political leader, and inventor of other health-minded things like a device to chemically clean the drinking water of Nashville.
#4. Dental Floss
The earliest version of modern dental floss was introduced by a New Orleans dentist named Dr. Levi Spear Parmly in 1815. This savvy tooth guru encouraged his patients to use a waxed silk thread between teeth after each visit. The thread he used was readily available to those early flossers as tailoring thread, but it wouldn’t be until 1922 that the marketed “dental floss” was developed and mass-produced. This came after Dr. Parmly’s 1819 dental book called A Practical Guide to the Management of Teeth, in which he says to brush twice a day and floss every day. We’re still working it, doc.
#5. Artificial Turf
David Chaney, the Dean of the North Carolina State University College of Textiles, led the team of researchers who created the first notable artificial turf. This accomplishment prompted Sports Illustrated to declare Chaney as the man “responsible for indoor major league baseball and millions of welcome mats.” Artificial grass first came to prominence in 1966, when AstroTurf was installed in the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. Since then, it has grown well beyond the world of sports. The heavy-duty, weather- and temperature-resilient turf is now used in landscaping, dog parks, rooftops, putting greens, and more.
Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, born in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1966, attended Auburn University and later the University of Alabama. His idea surrounding knowledge-sharing went on to become the world’s largest online encyclopedia: Wikipedia. Wales co-founded Wikipedia with Larry Sanger, the pair aiming to build a free online resource created by the public. Since its launch in January 2001, it’s become one of the most trafficked websites in the world. In 2006, Time Magazine named Jimmy one of “100 Most Influential People in the World.” Way to go, Jimbo!
#7. Three-Way Traffic Light
In 1923, Paris, Kentucky, native and former slave Garrett Morgan developed a traffic signal that provided a warning signal in addition to just the “stop” and “go.” He created this third warning light after witnessing a carriage accident at a problematic intersection in the city where he lived. Morgan quickly acquired patents for the first version of the modern three-way traffic light. He invented many other things, including gas masks, and paved the way for many African American inventors.
#8. Tow Truck
After an exasperating quest of roadside recovery for a friend whose car got stuck in a river, Ernest Holmes, Sr., of Chattanooga, Tennessee, went to work on finding a way to automate what had just taken eight men multiple hours to accomplish. His first prototype failed — a basic car simply wasn’t stable enough to recover another one. But Holmes kept working on his concept, pouring massive amounts of time and money into building a viable machine. This first tow truck was completed in 1919 and would have cost approximately $250,000 in today’s world. Considering how important your invention proved to be, we’d say it was way worth it, Ernest.
Birmingham, Alabama, native George F. Kirchoff is known as the “father of the airbag.” After graduating from Auburn University, he spent his early career designing rockets and rocket engines for aerospace applications. Using this rocket expertise, he turned to airbag design and spent more than 35 years developing the reliable, high-speed inflation mechanism that is now ubiquitous in modern cars and responsible for saving innumerable lives since its introduction in the 1980s.
We hope you experience an extra dose of Southern pride next time that traffic light turns green, you check out at the grocery store, or you whip out that post-cotton-candy floss!
Learn more fascinating Southern stories — subscribe to StyleBlueprint for your best “me moment” of your day!