TIME Style

The War That Shaped Women’s Legs

Nylon Stockings
A woman puts on nylon stockings, circa 1940 Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images

The answer to 'a maiden's prayers,' nylon stockings first went on sale 75 years ago today

In early 1940, TIME reported that something strange was going on in Wilmington, Del.: every Wednesday, women would wait for the stores that sold lingerie to open and then rush in, ready to offer proof that they were Wilmington residents.

The reason for the rush? Wilmington was the home of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., the chemical company better known as DuPont, and was the only city in America where nylon stockings could be purchased, for between $1.15 and $1.35 a pair (and only by residents of Wilmington). By the end of each Wednesday, the stores would be nearly sold out. Even though silk stockings were cheaper — about $1 a pair, by TIME’s reckoning — the nylons sold out for months after their debut on this day 75 years ago, Oct. 24, 1939.

Shortly after the discovery of nylon — which DuPont still touts as the first-ever “true synthetic textile fiber” — was announced in 1938, a TIME reader summed up the reasons behind the excitement. In a letter printed in the June 5, 1939, issue, she captured the feeling that it was a patriotic duty to boycott items coming from Japan, which happened to be the nation’s main source of silk:

Sirs:

In TIME, May 8, under People you noted that General Motors’ president had presented Princess Ingrid of Denmark with a pair of synthetic silk stockings. Since the Japanese sacked Nanking in 1937, I have worn no silk at all—and the substituted lisle & rayon hosiery are hateful to me. Those synthetic silk stockings sound like the answer to a maiden’s prayer. Are they on the market as yet? If so, where, please? If not—who is making them? Surely not General Motors? Whoever is making them can probably use another experimenter to test their wearability as a new product—so if you can give me any information, I will be more than grateful.

MARION LEVINE New York City

> Du Pont’s synthetic silk, said to have the elasticity that rayon lacks, is a synthesis of coal, air and water called Nylon, or Fibre 66. Nylon is not yet on the market, but Du Pont has given three girls at the New York World’s Fair a pair of Nylon stockings apiece which they have been wearing steadily for the past three weeks. Celanese Corp. of America is also working on a synthetic silk fibre, as yet unnamed. —ED.

A follow-up in the letters section two weeks later noted that readers could take comfort in the fact that “the Nylon girls” at the World’s Fair did wash their stockings every night — and it turned out that the Nylon girls did more than demonstrate the new product. Though much was made of the idea that imports from Japan might be as much as halved when national sales of Nylon began in May of 1940, the marketing certainly didn’t hurt. When that day came, TIME reported that the 6,000-dozen pairs that had been sent to New York City stores were almost all gone at the end of the first day, despite a two-pairs-a-person limit, setting hosiery sales records for many stores.

In 1941, silk imports from Japan were discontinued altogether, affecting stocking-wearers among many others. Since production of nylon was still ramping up, women mobbed stores to get new nylons before supplies ran out. “In Denver, women bought $125,000 worth of stockings in two days—enough to provide every woman over 14 in Denver with a pair, at 92¢ apiece,” TIME reported that August.

But the craze couldn’t last too long: the next year, DuPont announced that their supplies of nylon would go to military purposes (like parachutes) rather than garment manufacturers; throughout the rest of the war, nylon hose was in short supply. When it did return to the market, so did silk from Japan and other synthetic materials, though nylon was still preferred by many. These days, however, all that fuss over stockings seems pretty silly: it doesn’t matter so much what the stockings are made of when lots of women don’t wear them at all.

TIME conflict

This Vintage Map Shows the ‘Greatest Battle in the History of Naval Warfare’

The Battle of Leyte Gulf between Japanese and U.S. forces took place 70 years ago

TIME

In 1959, reflecting on the Battle of Leyte Gulf from a distance of 15 years, TIME declared that the World War II engagement — between the Japanese navy and U.S. troops on and around the island of Leyte, which the U.S. had taken a few days before — was “the greatest battle in the history of naval warfare.” (The map above is from that issue; roll over to zoom on a desktop or click if you’re viewing on mobile.)

The battle began on Oct. 23, 1944, when Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita of Japan led a fleet into the region and was flushed out by U.S. submarines. Over the course of three days of heavy fighting, the U.S. troops crippled the Japanese navy — and in the process made clear that old-fashioned line-of-battle style naval warfare no longer made sense, ending a military tradition that had been in place for centuries.

The battle was also a crucial step in General Douglas MacArthur‘s making good on his famed 1942 “I shall return” promise to the Philippines. But the troops weren’t the only Americans there — TIME correspondents were also in the area, sending dispatches back to the office. In the magazine’s Oct. 30, 1944, letter from the publisher, TIME explained how the process worked:

Last Friday John Walker of TIME’S Battlefronts department handed his first dispatch from the Philippines to an Army short-wave broadcaster.

“American power came back to the Philippines today over the glass-smooth, grass-green waters of Leyte Gulf under a tropical sun coming through an ominous haze lit by yellow flashes and the blasting of guns,” that message began. “It was virtually perfect weather for the landings.”

Walker’s words flashed across 7,000 miles of ocean via U.S. Army Signal Corps circuits to San Francisco. And there the monitors of the Blue Network picked them up—recorded them—wrote them down—and wired them east by fast overland telegraph—to reach TIME’S editors in New York in less than an hour’s time…

“All landings seem to have come off well,” Walker reported. “The beach where I am was perforated by both mortar and artillery fire at landing. Two boats hit, one sunk. Casualties relatively light. Loyal Filipinos helping us from the first moment of landing.”

Walker went on to tell how General MacArthur got his first view of the Philippines—”a gun-rocked coast backed by rolling hills. He saw it from a cruiser standing in to shore an hour after the landings, sitting placidly on the flag bridge puffing his pipe. . . .”

And when the General came ashore at Red Beach, TIME’S Bill Chickering, veteran of the Gilberts and the landing on Bougainville, was waiting on that “toughest beachhead” to report MacArthur’s arrival with President Osmeña:

“Both men seemed calm,” Chickering short-waved, “but MacArthur borrowed a canteen and his hand trembled as he held it to his lips. Watching his expression, there was no mistaking his elation. . . .

Read TIME’s full 1959 remembrance of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, here in the archives: Greatest & Last Battle of a Naval Era

TIME Sports

Tour de France Prize Money Way Up

Tour de France 1934
Frenchman Rene Vietto tries to break away from Spanish rider Vicente Trueba as they climb the mountain pass of the Tourmalet (Col du Tourmalet) on July 23, 1934 during the 18th stage of the 28th Tour de France AFP / Getty Images

With Wednesday’s official announcement of the route for the 2015 Tour de France, the best cyclists in the world know exactly where they’ll be next July. They also know what they stand to win: there are about 2 million euros (about $2.6 million) at stake, with a €450,000 prize for the final winner and €22,500 for the winner of each stage (that’s about $576,000 and $28,800, respectively).

That’s considerably less than the prize pool available for the famously lucrative International Dota 2 video game championships, but it’s plenty to get excited about — especially compared to the money that used to be available for Tour de France winners.

When TIME first covered the world’s most famous cycling event, in 1934, only 60 competitors were entered (versus 198 today) and the stakes were much lower:

L’Auto, Paris sportpaper, founded the race in 1903 as a circuit of the Auvergne highlands, enlarged it by stages to its present scale. L’Auto foots the bills for meals & lodging, furnishes to each contestant his bicycle, as many tires as he can wear out, $2.64 per day for pin-money. This year publicity-seeking merchants have scraped up 800,000 francs ($52,800) for prizes. The winner of each of the 23 daily laps gets 1,.000 francs ($660).

Even accounting for inflation, that’s not much compared to today’s prizes: $52,800 in 1934 dollars is $937,207.88 today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, and $660 is $11,715.10. That means the winner of each stage stands to make twice as much as he did 80 years ago, and the overall prize pot is nearly three times as big. And the prizes haven’t exactly climbed steadily: in 1954, TIME reported that the winner of each stage would take home a mere $570 (about $5,000 today).

At least 1934’s racers could afford a train ticket, if not necessarily first class. And, as TIME wrote in its coverage of the race, that was important: “One race was so swift and grim,” reported the magazine, “that after the finish a rider was reported to have bought a train ticket over the route so that he could inspect the scenery.”

Read more: A Brief History of the Tour de France

TIME conflict

The Death of Klinghoffer and What Actually Happened on the Achille Lauro

Achille Lauro
Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro leaves Port Said harbor on Oct. 10, 1985 after Egyptian authorities stopped it from sailing to the Israeli port of Ashdod. Mike Nelson — AFP/Getty Images

A controversial opera is based on the events of a 1985 terrorist attack

For New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, this week has been one in which the relationship between art and history got a little bit more complicated, as Monday’s opening night of the John Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer provoked protests. Those opposed to the production, who included former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, believe that the opera glorifies terrorism in the way it presents the story of those who caused the titular death; those who support it say that the opera, though about the 1985 murder of Leon Klinghoffer, does not celebrate the people who killed him. At its heart, the controversy is about the difficult distinctions between expression and endorsement–and perhaps even the very purpose of art.

But it’s also bound to raise a much more easily answered question, at least among younger observers of the debate: who was Leon Klinghoffer and what happened to him? Some hecklers reportedly yelled during the performance that his murder should never be forgotten, and there’s no sign that the opera’s supporters would disagree with that statement.

TIME covered the murder in the Oct. 21, 1985, issue, as a key element in a cover story about terrorism. As the magazine reported, the Achille Lauro was an Italian cruise liner taking about 750 passengers around the Mediterranean; those on board included 11 friends from New York and New Jersey, brought together by Marilyn Klinghoffer, who celebrated her 59th birthday during the trip. Leon Klinghoffer, Marilyn’s husband, was confined to a wheelchair after having had two strokes.

The ship also carried four other passengers, terrorists from the Palestine Liberation Front who supposedly planned to attack when the ship reached the city of Ashdod in Israel. But according to an Italian report at the time, after a waiter saw them with their guns they decided to launch their attack early, hijacking the ship and ordering the captain to steer the ship toward Syria. If their demands — for the release of 50 prisoners being held in Israel — were not met, they would begin to kill their hostages.

Leon Klinghoffer, tragically, was first. Here’s how TIME reported what happened:

At exactly what point these sadistic threats became reality is not known. But in a now familiar ritual of terrorism, the hijackers had decided to underscore their seriousness by taking a sacrifice. First they separated Leon Klinghoffer from his wife. “No,” said one gunman to the wheelchair-bound passenger. “You stay. She goes.” Marilyn Klinghoffer never saw her husband again. For the next 24 hours she and her friends were consumed by anxiety. When the hijacking was finally over, they looked all through the ship for him, though they expected the worst. Some passengers had noted that the trousers and shoes of one of the hijackers had been covered with blood. And besides, as one recalled, “We had heard gunshots and a splash.” Giovanni Migliuolo, the Italian Ambassador to Egypt, later chillingly reconstructed the event: “The hijackers pushed [Klinghoffer] in his chair and dragged him to the side of the ship, where, in cold blood, they fired a shot to the forehead. Then they dumped the body into the sea, together with the wheelchair.”

After it became clear that no nation would allow the hijacked ship to dock and the PLF negotiated for the hijackers to leave the ship, the Klinghoffers’ children were told that all of the passengers were safe. Hours passed before the State Department informed them that their father had not been found. About two days passed before the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt announced that Leon Klinghoffer had been murdered.

Marilyn Klinghoffer — who reportedly told President Reagan that she spat in the terrorists’ faces when asked to identify them in a line-up, to which he responded “You did? God bless you.” — died of cancer the following year. The opera The Death of Klinghoffer premiered a few years later, in 1991, in Belgium. Though it was controversial then as well, TIME’s critic Michael Walsh wrote that fears over the subject matter should not keep it from the ranks of operatic greatness. “Just as the lyrical and deeply humanistic [Nixon in China, an opera by the same creative team] confounded many who had expected a leftist demonization of the old unindicted co-conspirator,” he wrote, “so has this sweet, sorrowful Klinghoffer upended everyone’s expectations.”

Read the full story of the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, here in TIME’s archives: The Voyage of the Achille Lauro

Read TIME’s review of the premiere performance of The Death of Klinghoffer, here in the archives: Art and Terror in the Same Boat

TIME Style

‘Oscar’s Hairdo’: How to Create de la Renta’s Signature 1969 Updo

Society Ball New York
The society ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York City on Jan. 19, 1970. A woman wears "Oscar's Hairdo." Ron Frehm—AP

Get a TIME tutorial on the vintage style named after the late, great designer

Oscar de la Renta, the acclaimed fashion designer who died Monday at 82, will likely be best remembered for providing dresses for First Ladies and movie stars alike. In the late 1960s, however, he was also famous for something that was a lot less complicated than a couture gown: a messy hairdo.

The style — what might be called a “messy bun” in today’s YouTube hair tutorial lingo — was known in the U.S. as “Oscar’s hairdo” because, in November 1969, he had every model in his spring collection wear the style. The look, which TIME described as “skillfully composed to look as if it had been dragged through a thornbush backward” was alternately known as Belle Époque (because it resembled ‘dos of that era), the Onion (for British fashionistas), the Char (because it made you look like a charwoman, or cleaning lady), Concierge (in France) or Goulue (after the can-can dancer). LIFE Magazine even added it could be called “The Washerwoman.” It was originally conceived by Paris coiffeur Christophe Carita in 1968, perhaps inspired by Brigitte Bardot, and New York hairdresser Kenneth told TIME that its sex appeal may have come from the idea that if you could find the hairpin that’s holding it up “in a matter of seconds it will all be out on the pillow.”

Here’s how you create the look, as per TIME:

The front is pulled loosely up and back into a topknot. Underneath, along with the remainder of the hair, can generally be found several ounces of wool twine or a nylon mesh cushion, the better to swell the structure to second-head proportions. Hanging down at strategic intervals (at the temples, around the ears, and down the back of the neck), are separate, curling tendrils of hair. The whole thing may look like the work of a bird who flunked nest building.

Despite the many ironic names for the style, and this magazine’s implication that it was a ridiculous idea to pay to end up with messy hair — $17.50 at a Manhattan salon, a price that might cause today’s New Yorkers to faint in gratitude — Oscar’s Hairdo has proved to have staying power: Glamour has declared that the “coming-undone style” will be one of next spring’s hottest looks.

Read TIME’s review of Oscar de la Renta’s 1993 debut as the first American designer to head a Paris couture house, here in the archives: Mais Oui, Oscar!

TIME White House

Richard Nixon’s Comic Genius

NIxon's The One
Harry Shearer as Richard Nixon, with Henry Goodman as Henry Kissinger Ollie Upton—Sky Arts

Richard Nixon was imitating comedians, says the comedian who's imitating him

Most Americans think they have a pretty good idea of Richard Nixon: Checkers speech, Watergate, resignation.

Which is why Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons actor Harry Shearer decided to debut his Richard Nixon series, Nixon’s The One, in the U.K. The show, for which the scripts came from actual transcripts of Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, debuts for American audiences on YouTube on Tuesday — and people who think they know Nixon may be surprised, the actor says.

That’s because the Richard Nixon of Nixon’s The One is, in many ways, a comedian. Shearer and his co-writer Stanley Kutler, the historian who played a major role in getting those tapes released publicly, spent hundreds of hours listening to the tapes in search of “bizarre, funny, spooky, crazy, weird conversations” that weren’t necessarily about major world events but that shed a light on the President’s day-to-day character. Because many of the tapes had not been transcribed, as they were irrelevant to the Watergate investigation, they relied on logs of his Oval Office meetings to guess which tapes would contain conversations about the themes in which they were most interested; when they did listen, the tapes were often muffled and hard to decipher. And Shearer, who had played Nixon before, found that he had to do extra research in order to capture a relaxed version of the President, who was rarely seen in such a state publicly.

“One of the ways I try to figure out people is to figure out who are they imitating,” he says. “It struck me that the stance that I saw Nixon take when he was relaxed was imitative of the two most relaxed comedians of his era, Bob Hope and Jack Benny. He was sort of doing them, so I did him doing them.”

Nixon’s comedic side came out in particular in the scene prior to Nixon’s resignation, which was caught on camera rather than by Nixon’s audio recorder. In the minutes before he went on air, he joked with the camera crews, a choice that had long struck Shearer as odd, especially considering Nixon’s lack of affection for small talk. In the course of rehearsals, however, the actor came to believe that the joking was for a reason: “He thought, I believe, that these guys on the crew are going to go back home and talk to their families and say he wasn’t upset, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t sad, he was nice, he even wished us Merry Christmas,” Shearer explains. “It was the start of the next campaign, to rehabilitate his reputation.”

See an excerpt from that segment of Nixon’s The One:

And, says Shearer, the whole arc of Nixon is a comedy — or rather a tragicomedy — in its deep irony: Nixon was a self-made man, and then he became a self-destroyed man. “There’s something quite elegant about that,” Shearer says. “He sort of wrote the perfect punchline for his own joke.”

Read more: 9 Things You Didn’t Know About Richard Nixon

TIME White House

Ebola Czar Ron Klain Is a ‘Top-Flight Lawyer and Savvy Politician’

Lawyer and politcal operative Ron Klain on May 13, 2008 in New York City.
Lawyer and politcal operative Ron Klain on May 13, 2008 in New York City. Andrew H. Walker—Getty Images

The new Ebola czar is no stranger to making news

The White House confirmed Friday that President Obama has picked Ron Klain as the Administration’s “Ebola czar.” In his new role, Klain will be the point person for coordinating the nation’s response to the virus. The appointment marks a return to public life for Klain, who formerly worked under vice presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, but who has since spent several years in the private sector.

Though it’s a departure from his current job, the oversight role will no doubt draw on the skills that Klain has spent decades developing. In fact, back in 1994 TIME named Klain — then Chief of Staff to Janet Reno — to its list of 50 people who would make up the next generation of leadership. Here’s what we said about him back then:

In a city where name recognition is synonymous with success, Ron Klain has made a virtue of being unknown. As Attorney General Janet Reno’s chief of staff, he is all but invisible to the public but recognized in Democratic circles as the man to have on your side in a political or legal fight. A rare mix of top-flight lawyer and savvy politician, Klain shepherded the nominations of Reno and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg through the Senate and steered the omnibus crime bill through the turbulent legislative process. An honors graduate of Georgetown and Harvard Law, he clerked for Justice Byron White. Spurning six-figure law-firm offers, he signed on as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, a job Justice Stephen Breyer once held on his road to the High Court. Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, an admiring former teacher, calls Klain ”one of the most politically talented and intellectually powerful students I’ve ever had” — one destined to lose his anonymity soon.

Over the decades that followed, that paragraph would not be the only time Klain would show up in the pages of the magazine. His name came up in 2000 when Al Gore was questioned about a 1996 campaign-finance scandal, and throughout that year as Bush v. Gore progressed; John Kerry praised his help on the campaign trail in 2004; he was named as a possible replacement for Rahm Emanuel in 2010; he even joked around with Joel Stein in 2012 after the Supreme Court cited a TIME article about Internet privacy.

Today, as the U.S. and the world continue to fight the Ebola outbreak, Klain’s name in the news is sure to be an even more regular event.

Read the introduction to the “50 for the Future” list that included such luminaries as Ron Klain, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates, here in the archives: The Real Points of Light

TIME movies

This Disney Censorship Story Is Udderly Ridiculous

Disney And Mickey
Walt Disney with Mickey Mouse, circa 1935 General Photographic Agency / Getty Images

The studio was founded on Oct. 16, 1923

When the Disney Brothers Studio got its start on this day, Oct. 16, in 1923, Walt Disney couldn’t have predicted that his animation studio would become the entertainment powerhouse that it’s been for nearly a century.

He also probably failed to predict that, within a decade, he’d get hit with what must be one of the sillier censorship cases in history.

Here’s how TIME described what happened in February of 1931:

Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America last week announced that, because of complaints of many censor boards, the famed udder of the cow in the Mickey Mouse cartoons was now banned. Cows in Mickey Mouse or other cartoon pictures in the future will have small or invisible udders quite unlike the gargantuan organ whose antics of late have shocked some and convulsed other of Mickey Mouse’s patrons. In a recent picture the udder, besides flying violently to left and right or stretching far out behind when the cow was in motion, heaved with its panting when the cow stood still; it also stretched, when seized, in an exaggerated way.

That’s right: Clarabelle Cow’s udders were deemed inappropriate for tender American audiences, who one must presume did not know where milk comes from. Clarabelle was also censored at one point, in Ohio, after she was seen reading a racy book.

But, it turns out, Clarabelle wasn’t the only one of Disney’s creations to get adjusted by decency boards during the studio’s first decade. Canada banned another cartoon because of the way a fish got too close to a mermaid’s thigh, and German censors objected to a cartoon in which Mickey and friends were approached by cats wearing German military garb, which was seen as offensive to Germans. (It’s unclear from TIME’s coverage whether the German censors objected to being compared to undignified felines or to anti-Mickey predators.)

It was probably not because of her udders, but Clarabelle has largely faded away from the list of popular Disney characters, which means that–to paraphrase another cartoon icon, Bart Simpson–most of the studio’s movies these days do not, in fact, have a cow, man.

Read TIME’s 1937 cover story about Walt Disney here, in the archives: Mouse & Man

TIME Retirement

The Last Will and Testament of a Millennial

Portrait of woman writing letter at desk
Portrait of woman writing letter at desk, circa 1950 George Marks—Getty Images

It started with leaving my boyfriend my share of the rent — then things got complicated

I’m going to die, I reminded my boyfriend. My eventual death was something I’d been mentioning to lots of people, on Facebook and at engagement parties and at my high-school reunion.

It wasn’t that I thought death was going to come any time soon or in any special way, it’s just that, as they say on Game of Thrones, all men must die. So I was writing a will. I’d downloaded a template. I’d filled it out. I just hadn’t signed it yet, and in the mean time it had become my favorite topic of conversation: I’m going to die, we’re all going to die, I’m filling out paperwork about it, what’s new with you?

I asked my boyfriend: Is there anything else you want me to leave you? Besides my share of the rent. Besides the fish tank and the fish. Besides the coffee table, the pots and pans, the things that I call ours that are legally mine.

He said: Yes, but don’t tell me what it is. Make it something special.

That was a good answer, which wasn’t surprising. He takes deep questions seriously, and we’re well past the point where you have to act like it’s awkward to imply that your relationship will exist more than a few years in the future. So of course he had a good answer — but it was also a difficult one. What object that I owned could possibly say what I needed it to? There was, it must be said, not too much to choose from.

That’s a big part of the reason why young unmarried people with no children — that’s me: 28, legally unattached, childless — don’t usually bother with a will. Unlike a medical directive, which everyone should have, wills are something we can do without. The law of intestacy, the statutes that cover what happens when you die without said last testament, should take care of you just fine unless you’re very wealthy, whereas I fall into the It’s A Wonderful Life category: worth more dead than alive. I’m living comfortably, but my life-insurance policy is my most valuable asset.

Plus, most young people don’t need a will for an even more basic reason. Most of them don’t die.

However, even if death is a constant, life has changed. Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report finding that nearly half of American women 15–44 cohabitated with a partner prior to marriage, using data from 2006–2010. That was a major increase from past studies, and by now the numbers may well be even higher. A cohabitating partner is entitled to nothing when the other dies. Marriage and children are also coming later in life, which means that people are acquiring more wealth before the laws regarding spousal inheritance kick in and before they have to choose a guardian for their child. So for people like me, without a will, there’s no way to say give this thing to my friend, give this thing to my brother, donate this thing to charity.

Hence, my will obsession. If all goes according to plan, it will be the umbrella that keeps the rain from falling, rendered obsolete within a few years. Marriage and children and my inevitable Powerball victory will change my priorities, and I’ll have to write a new one. But, as anyone who’s ever thought about a will must have realized, not everything goes according to plan.

***

Given changing social norms, estate planning ought to be a mainstay for millennial trend-watchers, except that there’s no way to know how many of us are actually out there thinking about the topic. There’s no way to know how many wills there are, period. Lawrence Friedman, a professor at Stanford Law and the author of Dead Hands: A Social History of Wills, Trusts and Inheritance Law estimates that — though there’s no way to track them — wills may be getting more common as popular awareness increases. A century ago, even counting the super-wealthy, he thinks probably half of the population gave it a thought. But, he says, the role of wills is also changing, as people live longer and are more likely to give their children money while everyone is still alive.

What’s not changing is that wills are fascinating to think about. Whether it’s the buzzy economist Thomas Piketty discussing the way inherited wealth affects society or a historian analyzing Shakespeare’s bequeathing his “second-best bed” to his wife, people who look at wills see more than what the dead person wants to do with his stuff. “I used to say to my class that what DNA is to the body this branch of law is to the social structure,” Friedman puts it.

Though it may seem obvious today that each adult has the right to leave his property to whomever he chooses, that privilege isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. Historically, there have been two competing theories behind inheritance law. One side holds that having a will is an inalienable right; the 17th century scholar Hugo Grotius wrote that, even though wills can be defined by law, they’re actually part of “the law of nature” that gives humans the ability to own things. John Locke agreed: if we believe property can be owned, it follows that we must believe that ownership includes the right to pass that property to whomever the owner chooses.

On the other hand, there’s just as long a tradition of the idea that wills are a right established by government and not by nature, because, not to put too fine a point on it, you can’t take it with you. If ownership ends at death, the state should get to decide how inheritance works, for example by saying that all property must always go to the eldest son, or by allowing children written out of a will to appeal to the state. Perhaps due to colonial American distaste for the trappings of aristocracy, the U.S. ended up with the former system — and Daniel Rubin, an estates lawyer and vice president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, says it’s a right worth exercising. “For most young people, it’s not going to be relevant. But it’s a safeguard. People should appreciate the opportunity to do what they want with their stuff,” he says. “We’ve got a concept in the United States of free disposition of your wealth. You can choose to do with it whatever you want.”

Most wills written by young people won’t be read — except maybe by our future selves, nostalgic for the time when a $20 ukulele was a prized possession — and the ones that will be seen will be sad. If I die tomorrow, that will be what’s known as an unnatural order of death, the child going before the parents. Inheritance is not meant to flow upward. On that, tax law and the heart agree. It’s one area where millennials’ will-writing and older generations’ diverge: usually, estate law is a happier field than one might expect, something I’ve been trying to keep in mind. Rubin says he cannot imagine practicing any other area of law and finding it so rewarding.

“It’s never sad. Sometimes people are reluctant to deal with these issues. Perhaps they feel it brings bad luck although they rarely express it that way. It’s probably that they just don’t see the need to do it because they don’t think they’re going to die soon,” he says. “It’s almost uniform that even the most reluctant clients will sign their wills and then leave my office and feel great.”

***

Of course, it’s not as if “what if I die” is a rare thought, even for people under 30. Tom Sawyer took it to extremes; Freud thought we’re all itching to find out. People will be sad, we hope. Maybe we care about funeral arrangements, like the tragic Love, Actually character whose pallbearers march to the sound of the Bay City Rollers. Maybe we think we know what comes next; maybe we think nothing does. Maybe we’ve thought about who gets the heirlooms, the things that always carry a whiff of death about them.

What happens to the ordinary stuff that fills our homes is less likely to cross our minds. And lot of what we have, or at least what I have, is just crap on some level, mostly. That used starter-level Ikea, left behind by an old roommate who moved to California, isn’t exactly something I’d pass down. My most valuable possessions are mostly Bat Mitzvah gift jewelry. And my favorite possessions aren’t necessarily valuable. And if I did give these things away, how would they be received?

Once, I got a gift from a family friend days before she died. It was a beautiful silk scarf. The death was not unexpected, but I didn’t write a thank-you note in time. The envelope meant for that task was on my desk for years. It was hers, though she never got it, so I couldn’t send it to someone else. Nor could I bring myself throw it away. So I put it aside, indefinitely, until I moved apartments and it was lost in the shuffle, quite literally, in a box marked “stationery.” I didn’t want my crap to become that envelope, useless and painful and eventually lost. Potential candidates: an Altoids tin full of spare buttons, my half-filled journals, decade-old mix tapes; pens and pencils, giveaway tote bags, decks of cards, reference books; nice things like a painting, a laptop, that scarf; the stuff that goes unnamed in the will, under the clause that includes the words “all the rest of my estate.”

The things we leave behind can be heavy. Perhaps the most special something I could leave my boyfriend would be the freedom not to carry me with him. I was reminded of a poem that the rabbi always reads during the memorial portion of the Yom Kippur service. “When all that’s left of me / is love, / give me away,” it ends. I’d never really thought I was paying attention during that part, but it was there, in my brain, waiting for such a moment. (I looked it up; it’s called “Epitaph,” by Merrit Malloy).

That’s the other option — and, for a while, despite having spent so much time thinking about my will, I was tempted. I could write a simpler will, with only the instruction to give everything to charity, or I could follow the long-standing young person’s tradition and just scrap the whole endeavor.

Except stuff is the only language left to speak. Even Rubin, who says his work is 97% concerned with money rather than objects, knows the feeling: he has a samovar that came to America with his family when they left Eastern Europe with almost nothing. It’s worth little but referred to throughout his life by his mother as his yerushe, Yiddish for inheritance. And “leave me something special” wasn’t all that my boyfriend said. It’s sad to think about, he said, but I like the idea of being named in your will. It’s a privilege to hear someone speaking to you when you thought the chance was gone, he said. No matter what it says in the will, he said, I’ll be happy to hear your voice. He has a point. After all, the verb “bequeath” is from an Old English word meaning “to speak.”

So I decided not to give up on the will. I’ll give my junk and my money to the people I love — though I did end up adding two more clauses before I felt finished. First, I added a few sentences in my own words to the legalese of the template I’d found online: don’t feel bad if you have to get rid of something, I told my heirs. Legally enforceable? No. Worth saying? Yes. Second, I found that something special, something not too heavy.

I printed the will. I found some witnesses and we signed the paper. I folded it up and put it in an envelope and put that envelope somewhere safe. And then I went back to my life.

TIME natural disaster

Worldwide Earthquake Drill Comes 25 Years After Loma Prieta

Jan. 30, 1995, cover
The Jan. 30, 1995, cover of TIME Cover Credit: TOKYO SHIMBUN/REUTERS

This year's "Great ShakeOut" is Oct. 16; the Loma Prieta earthquake happened Oct. 17, 1989

On Thursday, Oct. 16, — at 10:16 a.m. — the annual Great ShakeOut earthquake drill will ask people around the world to take cover for a minute, practicing what they might do in the case of a real quake. It’s estimated that more than 25 million people will participate in this year’s event, which is organized by the Southern California Earthquake Center.

This coming Friday marks the 25th anniversary of a Californian earthquake that was far from a drill.

On Oct. 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco area. A 7.1 on the Richter scale, it was the worst quake in the region since 1906’s legendary tremors. According to TIME’s coverage of the aftermath, it was the “costliest natural disaster in U.S. history” at the time, in terms of dollars. It was estimated that the earthquake would cost the area about $10 billion; the vast majority of affected homes were not covered by earthquake insurance and parts of the I-880 freeway had to be demolished. Some speculated that the residual costs of the quake would stunt the Bay Area’s growth as a financial and business region. A year later, the actual cost was adjusted down to a mere $6 billion, but many people rendered homeless by the event were still without a place to live.

Within five years, however, Loma Prieta had been matched by the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California; a year later, another major quake in Kobe, Japan, brought the topic back into the news (as on the cover of TIME, above). Though the damage from such extensive earthquakes seems like something that a simple drill can’t affect, that’s not actually the case. As TIME put it in the Jan. 30, 1995, issue:

Much of the property damage from earthquakes, however, and not a small number of injuries, result not from cracking buildings but from heavy objects flying around and slamming into human flesh. Homeowners can be far more earthquake savvy, securing furniture, TV sets, bookcases and especially water heaters to the walls. Fires in the wake of an earthquake often do more damage than the quake itself, and many a fire has been caused by a top-heavy water heater keeling over, ripping a gas line out of a cellar wall and breaking it in the process. There is little evidence that people are taking these simple precautions, however. Few of those living around major faults really believe an earthquake is likely to strike until it actually does–and then, of course, it is too late.

The potential for a disastrous earthquake is no different today than it was back then — but, 25 years after Loma Prieta, millions of people are trying to do something before it’s too late.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser