ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This program comes to you from a building on North Capitol Street. We're located in Washington, D.C., which has no trouble being called the capital of the United States of America. That is undisputed. But there are such places as the toilet paper capital of the world, the gravel capital of the world, places with bragging rights to something other than just being where the government is. And writer George Pendle has created an interactive map at the website Atlas Obscura with world capitals. And to tell us about them, he's walked a mile from Capitol Hill to talk about the project. Welcome to the program.
GEORGE PENDLE: Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: What is the toilet paper capital of the world?
PENDLE: That would be Green Bay, Wis. And it became the capital of toilet paper for a very strange reason. Up until the early 20th century, there was some toilet paper, but it had a devastating problem. The paper had splinters in it. And there was no way of getting the splinters out, so every trip to the outhouse was a kind of game of Russian roulette. But Northern Paper Mill was one of Green Bay's finest toilet paper manufacturers. It came up with the splinter-free toilet paper, and that's what made Green Bay a booming capital city.
SIEGEL: They took the splinters out of toilet paper, you say.
PENDLE: They did. And it really, you know, helped mankind immeasurably.
SIEGEL: What inspired you to map all of these so-called capitals?
PENDLE: Well, it stems from a rather strange hobby I have, which is collecting photos of airport carpets from around the world.
SIEGEL: Photos of airport carpets?
PENDLE: Yes. My sanity has been questioned on that point. I was looking into where these carpets come from and who designs them, and I discovered they came from a city north of Atlanta called Dalton, Ga. And Dalton, Ga. is the carpet capital of the world. And the more I looked into it, the more I discovered that before it was the carpet capital of the world, it was the bedspread capital of the world back in the Victorian era. And I thought - there's a bedspread capital of the world and a carpet capital of the world? What else is there?
SIEGEL: Now how serious do you get as the arbiter of capitals? That is, do you take any self-proclaimed capital and include it in the map?
PENDLE: I think that's fair enough. I think, you know, a lot of the cities are kind of Horatio Alger-like cities. You know, they have brought it upon themselves to be great in any way they can, and this is their avenue of greatness. Some have had the designation thrust upon them purely because of the vast amount which they produce of a product. But some have been very cheerful in just proclaiming it, and nobody has argued against it.
SIEGEL: We've been talking about capitals of the world that are in the United States, but not all of them are. What is Xiangtan, China, the capital of?
PENDLE: It's actually the capital of jeans across the world. Xiangtan produces 800,000 pairs of jeans a day.
SIEGEL: Do they have any subcontractors in Kurobe, Japan?
PENDLE: (Laughter) I'm sure they do because as you well know, Kurobe, Japan is the capital city of zippers.
SIEGEL: It's the zipper capital.
PENDLE: That's right, because it is the home of the YKK Corporation, which stands for Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha - which, of course, you can't fit onto a zipper. So they shortened it down to YKK. And if you look down at your trousers, it's more than likely that you will see those letters on your zipper. Now don't do in public, maybe in private.
SIEGEL: So some of the things that you found people being capital of or cities being capital of - well, you know, I mean, the world could tire of zippers someday. Velcro could put an end to zippers.
PENDLE: Who knows what may happen? I mean, zippers were invented in America. The fastener, as they were known. But they went to Japan because the Japanese could do it better than Americans.
SIEGEL: Since you began this project, have you been notified by cities around the world of things that they're the world capital of?
PENDLE: Not yet, surprisingly. I'm surprised people haven't wanted to advertise their predominance in one single subject. I mean, it is kind of a badge of honor, yet it's also a badge of shame, in a way, to say that your entire city revolves around this one product. It's great, but it's also slightly humbling. I mean, when you look at - one of the strangest capitals is perhaps Anthony, which is a city which straddles the New Mexico-Texas border. And it has the most tenuous link of perhaps of any capital city I found, which was - it's declared itself the leap year capital of the world.
SIEGEL: The leap year capital of the world?
PENDLE: The leap year capital. It's nowhere near a dateline, it's - really, it's claim to fame seems to be, from the research I did, that a member of the Chamber of Commerce in Anthony was born on February the 29th, and so thought that this would be a great wheeze, to kind of name themselves the leap year capital. And literally, I think tens of people have flooded from around the world to celebrate their birthday there.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) Well, I guess they'll have a big event coming up.
PENDLE: I think so, I think so.
SIEGEL: All this is on an interactive map at the website Atlas Obscura. People can make suggestions to you to add other world capitals?
PENDLE: If they want to send in their world capital or even, you know, designate themselves a world capital, we'd be welcome to see it. Atlas Obscura is always out to find new places of wonder.
SIEGEL: George Pendle, thanks for talking with us about it.
PENDLE: Thank you.
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