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March 28, 2024 10 mins

This pair of stories is a mix of sweet and sour. Either way, though, they are curious.

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild.

Speaker 2 (00:12):
Our world is full of the unexplainable, and if history
is an open book, all of these amazing tales are
right there on display, just waiting for us to explore.
Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities. The Black Hand, the

Wise Guys, the Cosa Nostra. The Italian Mafia has gone
by many names over the years. Even though it's become
a staple of American pop culture, the real organization feels
as hard to pin down as it's ever changing nicknames.
But one thing we know for sure is that the
mafia got its start in Sicily, an island off the
southern coast of Italy. It grew from several small groups

of criminals into a kind of shadow government, controlling trade
and finances across the island. But how did the mafia
get that power in the first place. Well, the answer
is small, yellow and surprisingly sour. For hundreds of years, Palermo,
the capital of Sicily, was called the Concadoro, which means
the shell of gold, not because the region was very rich.

In fact, the people of Sicily were historically very poor,
and not because of any vacation ready golden sands. The
people there were much too concern with subsistence farming to
go to the beach. No, the shell of gold refers
to the trees that surround the region, or more specifically,
the golden yellow fruits growing on those trees. Palermo, as

it turns out, is the perfect place to grow lemons.
Until the late seventeen hundreds, Sicilian lemons had been treated
as an exotic ingredient for cooking and not much more.
All that changed, though, when one naval doctor had a
medical breakthrough. The doctor, James lind had been looking for
a way to prevent scurvy from killing his sailors. Scurvy

would cause his patients to become weak, they would develop
sores all over their body, and sometimes their teeth would
even fall out. Today we know scurvy comes from a
lack of vitamin C. Back then, James Lynde had no
idea what was causing it. All he knew was that
giving sailors citrus fruits seemed to help, especially limes, oranges,
and lemons. By seventeen ninety five, James Lynn's idea had

caught on and the Royal British Navy ordered gallons of
lemon juice to be sent out with each ship. Suddenly,
the golden shell didn't just refer to the trees. It
also meant the money flowing into Sicilian lemon growers. But
as you might expect, new cash couldn't fix old problems.
Sicily in the eighteen hundreds was a hard place to
live and even harder to govern. Bandits wandered the roads,

and local magistrates couldn't be counted on to protect their citizens.
With so many living in deep poverty, people would do
any to feed their families, including stealing the lemons. Citrus
growers needed someone to guard their crop, which is where
local groups of unemployed men saw their opportunity. At first,
they offered protection. It seems simple enough, right the grower

would hire them and they would patrol the lemon groves
at night, chasing off would be bandits. Pretty soon, this
protection they offered seemed more like a threat. If growers
didn't pay them, they might steal the lemons themselves, and
in some cases the money still wasn't enough. Why work
to protect the lemons for a pittance when they could
make a fortune selling the fruit. Instead, the Protectors began

working as middlemen between growers and exports, hiking up the
prices and taking a big slice of the lemon pie
for themselves, and the growers were stuck. Sicily had only
just become part of the Kingdom of Italy, and many
Sicilians saw the far away government in Rome as oppressive outsiders.
At least with their protectors, you knew who you were

dealing with, so the bandits of the so called Protectors
ranged across the island. The local term for these organized
groups of criminals were men of honor. Since they all
had a certain bravado, people started calling them the Sicilian
word for swagger, mafia. The mouth puckering roots of the
mafia also helped its expansion over the next century. The

mafia got its tentacles into industries all across Sicily, from
growing wine, grapes and wheat, to manufacturing and even local government,
but the big money maker was always lemons. In the
early nineteen hundreds, Sicily got some new competition. It turned
out that Florida also had the perfect conditions for citrus growing,
and Florida oranges, lemons, and limes flooded the market, tanking

Sicily's economy, thousands of Sicilians left the island looking for
a new life in the United States. The mafia needed
a new revenue stream, so they two headed to the
land of opportunity, and if Martin Scorsese's movies are anything
to go by, they found it in abundance. Today, the
Sicilian Mafia is known and feared around the world. They're

the stuff of silver screen legends and real life tabloids.
But they got their starts in the humble citrus groves
of Palermo. When a gangster gave a grower an offer
he couldn't refuse. You know, some days you just need

a little reward.

Speaker 1 (05:33):
To keep you going. I'm not talking about something big,
more like life's little luxuries. For some people, that might
mean a coffee from their favorite shop. For others, a
new video game that they've been wanting to play. Many
people find their little bit of luxury at the nail salon.
It's an affordable way to relax and get a bit
of pampering in and if they're in the US, there's
a good chance the nail technicians sitting across from them

is Vietnamese. In fact, nearly half of all American nail
salons have Vietnamese owners. The reason why it might surprise you.
It's one that goes back fifty years to an actress
named Natalie. Natalie had never been one to stand by
when someone needed help, so in nineteen seventy five, when
she saw thousands of Vietnamese people fleeing their country after saigonfell,

she knew she had to do something. True, she hadn't
started out as a humanitarian. In fact, for most of
her life she was a performer, first a model and
then an actress in the nineteen sixties. After that, she
was an animal rights activist, turning her home in California
into a wildlife sanctuary for lions and tigers in nineteen
seventy two. But by seventy five she was at a

military base in northern California, voluntaring to help refugees start
a new life in the United States. Her first task
to help twenty newly arrive Vietnamese women find jobs. To
say this group of women had been through the ringer
would be an understatement. Back home, many of them were
wives of military officers, others worked for US military intelligence.

They'd gone from comfortably middle class to crammed into military barracks.
They were in an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar language, food,
and culture. Many had been separated from their husbands and
children in the chaos, and now, with Natalie's help, they
had to start entirely from scratch. To help them, Natalie
brought in seamstresses, typists and anyone she could think of

to train these women in good paining jobs. But it
wasn't the lessons that excited them. It was Natalie's nails.
During the sessions, several women kept admiring how long and
elegance her Beverly Hills style manicure was, which gave Natalie
an idea. In the nineteen seventies, manicures and pedicures were
inexpensive luxury, reserved for the wealthy women who could afford them.

A good nail technician could make a lot of money,
and they didn't need to be fluent in English to
get started. Natalie flew her personal manicurist up from Beverly
Hills and enlisted the help of a local beauty school.
She made sure the trainers emphasize expensive beauty techniques that
would attract clients with more money to spend, and just
a few weeks later, twenty new licensed nail technicians joined

the workforce. And those twenty women that Natalie helped move
to Vietnamese neighborhoods all across the country. Seeing how well
they were doing in the nail business, more and more
of Vietnamese immigrants wanted to do the same. One couple,
Dm and Ken Newin saw the perfect opportunity. Back in Vietnam,
Dm had been a Navy commander while Kien was a hairdresser.

Now living in Garden Grove, California, they were having trouble
finding work. When Kien's friends returned from training with Natalie,
they realized that for Vietnamese immigrants, the nail industry was
the new frontier. Someone just needed to lead the charge.
So they opened up the Advanced Beauty College in Garden Grove,
offering manicure and cosmetology training in English and Vietnamese. Today,

the Advanced Beauty College has trained thousands of nail technicians,
most of which have been Vietnamese. And when you step
back and look at it, these nail technicians didn't just
make over their clients, they also made over an entire industry.
You see back in the nineteen seventies, a manicure might
run you fifty whole dollars, which is the same as
nearly three hundred dollars today, which made it a relatively

unattainable luxury. But Natalie's nail trainees saw a niche affordable
manicures for working women. But by cutting prices and expanding
to working class neighborhoods across the country, the nail industry exploded.
For the first time, you didn't have to be a
Hollywood actress to get your nails done, all thanks to
Natalie Hedron, who admittedly was a Hollywood actress, as is

by the way, her daughter and granddaughter Melanie Griffiths and
Dakota Johnson. I hope you've enjoyed today's guided tour of
the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts,
or learn more about the show by visiting Curiosities podcast
dot com. The show was created by me Aaron Manky

and partnership with how Stuff Works. I make another award
winning show called Lore, which is a podcast, book series,
and television show, and you can learn all about it
over at Theworldoflore dot com. And until next time, stay curious,

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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