Meet the man who runs a wet towel museum in a planetarium
It all started as a joke: A small collection of wet wipes stuck in a box in a desk drawer at a Pittsburgh planetarium in the 1990s.
John French says he and a friend were amazed at the weird collections he found online when the internet started. But he couldn’t find any wet wipe collections or websites, so he started one.
âI said I would be the first to have wet wipes on the internet,â said French, founder of the Moist Towelette Museum. As it happens host Carol Off.
He never imagined his collection would grow to over 1,000 and travel from Pennsylvania to Texas, then Michigan with him, growing.
He now runs his mini-museum in a corner of his office at the Abrams Planetarium in Lansing, Michigan. There he exhibits hundreds of individually wrapped wet wipes from every continent except Antarctica.
The history of small wet wipes
Wipes have been marketed to clean everything from fingers to private parts. They were invented in 1958, when the American Arthur Julius came up with the idea that became a hallmark of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Over the years, it’s been sold alongside everything from messy meals to popcorn on movie releases. People have donated to the French’s Museum – which consists of a corner shelf – from all over the world.
He’s got a used one – donated by Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of NPR’s longtime weekly Car Talk, after it was used to clean grease from cars. Tom has since passed away in 2014.
The ‘holy grail’ of wet wipes
French says he dreams of getting the “holy grail” of wet wipes, a Star Trek-themed collection, featuring images of Captain Kirk and Spock. But for now, he only has one picture of it – and a dream.
In the meantime, visitors drop by and sign the guestbook, and he says interest is high. He doesn’t know if it is pandemic boredom or the concern with hand cleaning.
French first felt like he was on something when he set it up at his old workplace – a planetarium in Corsicana, TX – and he picked up a piece of furniture used to showcase the Mars Rover. .
âI noticed that visitors to the museum and planetarium spent more time looking at the wet wipes than they ever did in the Mars Rover exhibit we had,â he said.
As small and odd as its museum is, the cache of scented wipes has captured the imaginations of many who come to see it, preserving a portable timeline of pop culture history with its collection of fast food-inspired wipes. .
The oldest French wipe is that of a brand called “Wash up!” dated 1963, just a few years after their invention.
French collection wipes range from baby wipes to special soaked tissues for storing typist fingers blackened with typewriter tape. Another product promises to remove radioactive contamination.
Since they were first manufactured, wet wipes have gained notoriety as being unfriendly to the environment, particularly those advertised as being able to be rinsed off. They can exacerbate sewer plugs and even contribute to “fatbergs” of fame in the UK, where the excessive use of household drains to remove oil and grease has taken its toll on plumbing and created blockages. .
âI don’t flush my towels. I save and collect them. I think it’s better for the environment,â he said.
French says running the museum doesn’t take a lot of time. For most of his day, he creates publications for the planetarium about what is happening in the night sky, or he adorns shows with the star projector.
Some visitors come, enjoy a spectacle of the night sky, and end up stumbling upon his cache of wipes.
But it all started with a joke with his friend James Hughes. For years, they didn’t care about wet wipes. His friend has since passed away, but French says he would have loved the way their shared joke captured people’s imaginations.
Written by Yvette Brend. Interview conducted by Sarah Jackson.