As It Happens

Meet the man who runs a moist towelette museum out of a planetarium

A Michigan man who runs a museum featuring more than 1,000 moist towelettes says the whole idea started as a bit of a joke, but he's gotten donation and interest from all over the world.

Michigan's John French has more than 1,000 wet wipes — but his collection is not complete

John French owns what is believed to be the world's only moist towelette museum, located at the Michigan State University's Abrams Planetarium. (Submitted by John French)

It started as a joke: a small collection of moist towelettes jammed into a box in an office drawer, at a Pittsburgh planetarium in the 1990s.

John French says he and a friend were amazed at the strange collections he found online in the early days of the internet. But he couldn't find any moist towelette collections or websites — so he started one.

"I said I'm going to be the first one to have moist towelettes on the internet," French, founder of the Moist Towelette Museum, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

He never imagined his collection would grow to more than 1,000 and travel from Pennsylvania to Texas and then Michigan with him, gathering momentum.

French says he has more than 1,000 moist towelettes in his collection. (Submitted by John French)

He now runs his mini-museum out of a corner of his office at the Abrams Planetarium in Lansing, Mich. There he displays hundreds of individually wrapped moist towelettes from every continent, except Antarctica.

The history of tiny wet wipes

Towelettes have been marketed to clean everything from fingers to, well, private parts. They were invented in 1958, when American Arthur Julius came up with the idea that became a trademark of the Kentucky Fried Chicken meal.

Over the years it was sold alongside everything from messy meals to popcorn at movie releases. People have donated to French's museum — which consists of a corner shelving unit — from all over the world.

French shows off his oldest moist towelette, dating to 1963, just a few years after the concept was first invented to accompany greasy fried chicken fast food. (John French)

He has one used towelette — donated by Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of NPR's long-running weekly Car Talk show, after it was used to clean off car grease. Tom has since died in 2014.

The 'Holy Grail' of moist towelettes

French says he dreams of procuring the "Holy Grail" of moist towelettes, a Star Trek-themed collection, with images of Captain Kirk and Spock. But for now he only has a picture of it — and a dream.

In the meantime, visitors drop by to check it out and sign the guestbook, and he says interest is high. He's not sure if it's the pandemic boredom or preoccupation with hand cleaning.

The Moist Towelette Museum owner in Michigan would love to acquire one of these wipes that were used to market the Star Trek movies — but so far only has an image. (John French)

French first had an inkling he was onto something when he set it up at his previous work place — a planetarium in Corsicana, Texas — and it took over a cabinet used to showcase the Mars Rover.

"I noticed that visitors to the museum and planetarium were spending more time looking at the moist towelettes than they ever did at the Mars Rover exhibit we had," he said.

As small and odd as his museum is, the cache of scented wipes has captured the imagination of many who come to see it, preserving a hand-held timeline of pop-culture history with his collection of fast-food inspired wipes.

French's oldest wipe is from a brand called "Wash up!" dated 1963, from just a few years after they were invented.

The wipes in French's collection range from baby wipes to special soaked hankies to tidy up a typist's fingers blackened from typewriter tape. Another product promises to wipe off radioactive contamination.

This wipe claims to wipe away radioactive contamination. (John French)

Since they were first made, wet wipes have gained some infamy as environmentally unfriendly — especially those that are advertised as flushable. They can exacerbate sewer clogs and even contribute to the "fatbergs" of fame in the U.K., where excessive use of home drains to discard oil and fat wreaked havoc on plumbing and created blockages.

"I don't flush my towelettes. I save them and collect them. I think that's better for the environment,'' he said.

French says running the museum doesn't take that much time. For most of his day, he creates publications for the planetarium about what's up and coming in the night sky, or he orates shows with the star projector.

Some visitors come, enjoy a night sky show, and end up stumbling upon his cache of wipes.

But it all started with an inside joke with his friend James Hughes. For years, they'd laugh about moist towelettes. His friend has since died, but French says he would have loved how their shared joke captured people's imagination.

Written by Yvette Brend. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson.

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