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Tags buttons , Frederick the Great , military uniform , sleeves

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Old 5th February 2011, 03:23 AM   #1
Ladewig
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Buttons on sleeves. Is the claim about wiping noses accurate?

I cannot count the number of times I have heard the story about how some military leader (often Napoleon or Frederick the Great) was so bothered by soldiers wiping their noses on their sleeves that he commanded that buttons be sewn on the front of sleeves. Cecil Adams (The Straight Dope) describes it as a good story but makes no claims as to its veracity.

I'm skeptical.

If you are the type of person who would use the front part of the cuff of your sleeve to wipe your nose, aren't you also the kind of person who would wipe your nose with part of the sleeve near the elbow or with part of the cuff that doesn't have buttons?
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Old 5th February 2011, 03:36 AM   #2
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The origins of the buttons at the coat sleeves and the imitation buttonholes are also difficult to explain. According to Nystrom, these buttons are vestiges of custom down from the time when outer garments were actually opened at the sleeve, making the button and buttonhole a necessary means of open and closing.

Other sources say the style originated in 18th century military uniforms. Commanders reportedly ordered buttons sewn on the sleeve cuffs of expensive military jackets to prevent soldiers and sailors from wiping their mouths and noses on their sleeves.

We have seen this suggested concerning both boys and youthful recruits as well as men. Concerning boys the legend goes that they cried a lot and were constantly wiping their tears and nose with their sleeves. The buttons made this more difficult.

Some sources claim that sleeve buttons originated in the 18th century with Frederick the Great of Prussia who didn't like his soldiers spoiling their fancy uniforms by wiping their noses on their sleeves.

Other sources say that Bitain's Lord Nelson was responsible. Here it should be noted that while officers wore military jackets at the time of Nelson, enlisted men did not.

Thus if Nelson came up with the idea it would have been for the young midshipmen--boys training to be officers.
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Old 5th February 2011, 03:50 AM   #3
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I was as a member of the Navy told that the buttons were to stop people wiping their noses/mouths on their sleeves. NCO uniforms had this feature, officer and sailor uniforms did not (nor did midshipman uniforms).
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Old 5th February 2011, 04:05 AM   #4
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Originally Posted by Kid Eager View Post
I was as a member of the Navy
At the time of Nelson?

I think the buttons on the sleeve is from the days when sleeves opened.

I am sure officers had enough decorum to not use their sleeves as nose rags. (especially Admirals and the like)


The British Redcoats chose red so as not to show the blood from their wounds.

Now we know why Hitler wore brown trousers.

All relics of past old wives tales.
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Old 5th February 2011, 04:49 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by Skwinty View Post
At the time of Nelson?

I think the buttons on the sleeve is from the days when sleeves opened.
The positioning of the buttons is not consistent with that belief - they follow a line around the circumference of the sleeve, not down the length of the sleeve.
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Old 5th February 2011, 05:01 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by Kid Eager View Post
The positioning of the buttons is not consistent with that belief - they follow a line around the circumference of the sleeve, not down the length of the sleeve.
Sure, but you can still wipe your mouth or nose on the arm part of the sleeve. You don't need to use the cuff.

The buttons don't have to be to open the sleeve, they are the vestiges of the custom and they look cool.

So, vestiges of custom for decorative purposes is what I think.

The next thing coming will be the stripes on trouser legs were there to hide the stains of snot when the soldier wipes his nose with his hand and then cleans his hand on his trouser legs.

Old wives tales, I tell you.
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Old 5th February 2011, 05:15 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by Skwinty View Post
Sure, but you can still wipe your mouth or nose on the arm part of the sleeve. You don't need to use the cuff.

The buttons don't have to be to open the sleeve, they are the vestiges of the custom and they look cool.

So, vestiges of custom for decorative purposes is what I think.

The next thing coming will be the stripes on trouser legs were there to hide the stains of snot when the soldier wipes his nose with his hand and then cleans his hand on his trouser legs.

Old wives tales, I tell you.
Vestigal forms follow the design of the original function. Your assertion remains invalid. Besides which. I'm right. Next, please.

The old wives weren't there, I was. Sort of.
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Old 5th February 2011, 05:19 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by Kid Eager View Post
Vestigal forms follow the design of the original function. Your assertion remains invalid. Besides which. I'm right. Next, please.

The old wives weren't there, I was. Sort of.
lol
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Old 5th February 2011, 05:31 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by Skwinty View Post
<snip>

The next thing coming will be the stripes on trouser legs were there to hide the stains of snot when the soldier wipes his nose with his hand and then cleans his hand on his trouser legs.

<snip>
I am so repeating this every time I hear the buttons/sleeve story.
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Old 5th February 2011, 06:53 AM   #10
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Actually, it was in the tailor's union contract with the military. "What, no buttons? We'll have to lay lads off. Unacceptable!"
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Old 5th February 2011, 08:00 AM   #11
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When I was young, upper-class men here in the UK used to keep their handkerchiefs in their sleeves.
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Old 5th February 2011, 08:07 AM   #12
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Originally Posted by leon_heller View Post
When I was young, upper-class men here in the UK used to keep their handkerchiefs in their sleeves.
Like these gentlemen?
Attached Images
File Type: jpg fops.jpg (50.0 KB, 6 views)
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Old 5th February 2011, 08:11 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by Skwinty View Post

The British Redcoats chose red so as not to show the blood from their wounds.
And Royal Navy officers chose blue for the same reason
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Old 5th February 2011, 11:12 AM   #14
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I don't know how successfully a red coat would disguise a gaping musket-ball or grapeshot wound. "I say, old chap, are you hit?" "Don't know, old bean...Let me remove my jacket...."

Actually, I understand the typically-gaudy uniforms of that era were helpful in allowing commanders to quickly identify and maneuver their units in the heat of black-powder battles where visibility was typically poor.
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Old 5th February 2011, 11:14 AM   #15
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Originally Posted by Bikewer View Post
I don't know how successfully a red coat would disguise a gaping musket-ball or grapeshot wound. "I say, old chap, are you hit?" "Don't know, old bean...Let me remove my jacket....".
Well it is a thread about old wives tales after all.

ETA: What do you means ships old chap, I see no ships.
Stiff upper lip and all, no quivering allowed, it just isn't British you know.
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Old 5th February 2011, 11:25 AM   #16
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Originally Posted by Bikewer View Post
I don't know how successfully a red coat would disguise a gaping musket-ball or grapeshot wound. "I say, old chap, are you hit?" "Don't know, old bean...Let me remove my jacket...."

Actually, I understand the typically-gaudy uniforms of that era were helpful in allowing commanders to quickly identify and maneuver their units in the heat of black-powder battles where visibility was typically poor.
It wouldn't hide an intestines spilling shot, that is for sure. But any cut or wound that was more blood than damage, you wouldn't immediately notice, hence no freak out of " omg look at the blood!" by you or the guy next to you.

In short, unless you were damaged in a way that made you nonfunctional ( the mentioned gutshot, or a missing limb, etc.) , you wouldn't be worrying about it.
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Old 5th February 2011, 11:47 AM   #17
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Coincidentally, there is a commercial on TV here for a cold cure that shows Napoleonic troops wiping their noses on their sleeves. They are using the whole of the forearm, and doing it in unison. I can't see how a few buttons at the ends of the sleeves would be much of a deterrent.

In Elizabethan times, everyone, including the Queen, blew their noses on their fingers. More environmentally sound than using tissues, if a bit messy.
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Old 5th February 2011, 12:15 PM   #18
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I read that the color khaki was developed in France, as one of the Louis would frequently............ his pants, and the color was adapted to hide the stain.
The lack of a "facility" in his palace also resulted in lots of waste being deposited in the hallways when nature called.
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Old 5th February 2011, 12:21 PM   #19
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It was first used by British troops in India. Khaki is an Indian word, meaning dust-coloured.
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Old 5th February 2011, 12:28 PM   #20
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Originally Posted by Bikewer View Post
Actually, I understand the typically-gaudy uniforms of that era were helpful in allowing commanders to quickly identify and maneuver their units in the heat of black-powder battles where visibility was typically poor.
That's true as fas as it goes, but other armies chose different colours, the reason for the British association with red goes back to Cromwell, when the parliamentarian New Model Army was created with the radical idea of having a Uniform, the cheapest dye was used to crease a uniform appearance, at that time red was the cheapest option for mass dying. With the eventual union of the nations of Great Britain the use of Red was maintained until the ability to hide easily became more important on the battlefield then the ability to easily distinguish friend from foe.
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Old 5th February 2011, 12:31 PM   #21
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Originally Posted by sadhatter View Post
It wouldn't hide an intestines spilling shot, that is for sure. But any cut or wound that was more blood than damage, you wouldn't immediately notice, hence no freak out of " omg look at the blood!" by you or the guy next to you.

In short, unless you were damaged in a way that made you nonfunctional ( the mentioned gutshot, or a missing limb, etc.) , you wouldn't be worrying about it.
Except webbing was usually white and trousers where usually white or blue. It would have to be a pretty damn small and precise wound to not show up on the tunic.
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Old 5th February 2011, 12:32 PM   #22
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Originally Posted by brodski View Post
With the eventual union of the nations of Great Britain the use of Red was maintained until the ability to hide easily became more important on the battlefield then the ability to easily distinguish friend from foe.

The Boers showed the British on a few occasions that red and white wasn't a good colour scheme for war in Africa.
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Old 5th February 2011, 12:36 PM   #23
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Originally Posted by brodski View Post
.... was the cheapest option for mass dying. .
excellent Freudian Slip there, old chap! I think you meant "dyeing", but I could be wrong...
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Old 5th February 2011, 12:38 PM   #24
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Originally Posted by Kid Eager View Post
excellent Freudian Slip there, old chap! I think you meant "dyeing", but I could be wrong...
both work...
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Old 5th February 2011, 12:44 PM   #25
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Originally Posted by Skwinty View Post
The Boers showed the British on a few occasions that red and white wasn't a good colour scheme for war in Africa.
It wasn't the location that was the problem, but the enemy.

By which I mean that when you're having traditional battles against other regular armies- easy identification of your troops is a good thing. If you're fighting against guerilla tactics then red is a bad idea. Unless you're on Mars.
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Old 5th February 2011, 12:58 PM   #26
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If you pay for a top-of-the-line, money-is-no-object hand-tailored suit you can still get functional buttons on the sleeves, a reminder of the days when you needed the ease in your coatsleeve to fit it over your other garments. The decorative ones are mainly to save money and time: it's easier to sew the whole seam up then deal with those fiddly bits. You'll also notice that cheaper garments, like jackets, have one-piece sleeves whereas more expensive suit jackets and some sports coats have two-piece ones: the latter fit the shape of the arms better but are more expensive in terms of time and materials (why yes, I have done some tailoring. Classic menswear tailoring has a lot of fussy handwork that off-the-rack stuff doesn't have)

About hiding bloodstains: the red the British used for their uniforms, at least the ones I've seen in museums is not the same shade as blood, at least to my eyes, but it's close. However, pre-industrial dyes weren't as colorfast as modern ones, and a few weeks of campaigning in the sun, rain and mud would likely cause the colors to fade or run. As Philip Matyszak wrote in "Legionary: the Roman Soldier's Unofficial Manual": "The macho reason for [preferring red tunics] is that it hides bloodstains, but first, legionaries are generally relaxed about the sight of blood (unless it's their own, in which case they tend to notice it whatever the tunic color) and secondly, madder bleaches very quickly in the sun , so after a hard campaign the legion comes home clad in a rather fetching shade of pink." The British used cochineal for their reds, but I don't know how fast that is. I favor the "tell the armies" apart explanation.
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Old 5th February 2011, 01:12 PM   #27
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In British based navies Midshipmen had the nickname of 'Snotties' and had the three buttons on the jacket cuff...
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Old 5th February 2011, 01:14 PM   #28
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The buttons on my sleeves are on the distal side, with nothing to interfere with wiping snot on the proximal side.
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Old 5th February 2011, 01:16 PM   #29
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The boers were masters of camoflage and guerilla tactics, being expeienced hunters.

The British learned hard lessons, but prevailed in the end.

My wifes great grandmother spent time in the British concentration camps.
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Old 5th February 2011, 01:19 PM   #30
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Originally Posted by Skwinty View Post
The Boers showed the British on a few occasions that red and white wasn't a good colour scheme for war in Africa.
I read once that most British troops in S. Africa died of disease or starvation. This was confirmed by the inscription on a war memorial to the Boer campaign in Hull, where I lived for a few years - everyone mentioned had died of disease or privation, there wasn't a single death in action.
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Old 5th February 2011, 01:35 PM   #31
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Originally Posted by leon_heller View Post
I read once that most British troops in S. Africa died of disease or starvation. This was confirmed by the inscription on a war memorial to the Boer campaign in Hull, where I lived for a few years - everyone mentioned had died of disease or privation, there wasn't a single death in action.
There were many deaths due to disease and starvation, but also many were killed in action.

Here are some references.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo_Boer_War

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Boer_War

http://www.greeff.info/tng01/angloboerwar.php

http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~enkwaa/effects.html
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Old 5th February 2011, 03:28 PM   #32
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Originally Posted by George152 View Post
In British based navies Midshipmen had the nickname of 'Snotties' and had the three buttons on the jacket cuff...
The first part of the statement is true, the second is not. My jacket did not have any buttons on the sleeve.
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Old 5th February 2011, 03:32 PM   #33
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Originally Posted by Retrograde View Post
I favor the "tell the armies" apart explanation.
What about the Martian theory?
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Old 5th February 2011, 07:01 PM   #34
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Other button lore I've heard. (No clue if it's accurate or not.)

Cheap suit jackets have dummy buttons sewn on, without corresponding button holes - as the fiddliness of sewing them would take time and make them more expensive. So men who can afford Saville Row will sometimes sport the first sleeve button unbuttoned to discreetly alert people that they didn't get their jacket from M&S.

Apparently the Vikings didn't bother with buttons at all.
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Old 5th February 2011, 07:50 PM   #35
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If they were worried about nose/mouth wiping, the cuff link would be a far better deterrent - it would get you on both sides.

I'm with the group that thinks it's a vestigial artifact from when buttons were needed to open and close a narrow cuff - a throwback like the necktie that has no current rational need but is just there because it's there and has been for several centuries.
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Old 5th February 2011, 07:52 PM   #36
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Originally Posted by Skwinty View Post
The British Redcoats chose red so as not to show the blood from their wounds.
That's actually false. Fresh blood (or just about any other water-based fluid) shows up as black on a red cloth. Plus, you know, there's the whole part about someone sporting a fist-sized exit wound and collapsing in a squirming and moaning heap that tends to give it away. Early guns were VERY high calibre and not encased in copper, so they deformed a lot and took a lot of tissue with them.

The more mundane fact of the matter is that red dye in England was very cheap. And as the Murphy law of combat goes, never forget that your weapon was made by the lowest bidder. Or in this case, your uniform.

ETA: Well, weapon too. Those Redcoats had smoothbore muskets without any kind of sights at all, because they were cheaper and faster to load than the minutemen's rifles.

As for the Nazi brown shirts (SA) since you mention them, same deal: they could be bought from army surplus for next to nothing. If you had to equip a group of thugs outnumbering the actual army by an order of magnitude or so, you'd probably go for the cheapest thing you can buy in bulk too.

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Old 5th February 2011, 07:56 PM   #37
Kid Eager
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Originally Posted by Foolmewunz View Post
If they were worried about nose/mouth wiping, the cuff link would be a far better deterrent - it would get you on both sides.

I'm with the group that thinks it's a vestigial artifact from when buttons were needed to open and close a narrow cuff - a throwback like the necktie that has no current rational need but is just there because it's there and has been for several centuries.
You keep missing the fact that the buttons are in a circumferential row around 10cm from the cuff. This is inconsistent with the claimed historical purpose of opening and closing the sleeve. They're not small buttons either - raised metal around 2cm across.
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Old 5th February 2011, 08:04 PM   #38
Foolmewunz
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Originally Posted by Kid Eager View Post
You keep missing the fact that the buttons are in a circumferential row around 10cm from the cuff. This is inconsistent with the claimed historical purpose of opening and closing the sleeve. They're not small buttons either - raised metal around 2cm across.
Actualy, yes,... I was missing that. I was discussing the buttons on the suit thingy.

(Any pics of the buttons that you're speaking of? I've actually never seen such a get-up.)
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Old 5th February 2011, 08:06 PM   #39
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Originally Posted by leon_heller View Post
It was first used by British troops in India. Khaki is an Indian word, meaning dust-coloured.
.
Might have been olive drab. I think poo might be evident on khaki.
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Old 5th February 2011, 08:27 PM   #40
Kid Eager
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Originally Posted by Foolmewunz View Post
Actualy, yes,... I was missing that. I was discussing the buttons on the suit thingy.

(Any pics of the buttons that you're speaking of? I've actually never seen such a get-up.)
I've got some b&w shots in the ship's line book showing the senior sailors with the buttons on their sleeves, but I'll have to scan it first. Will check online to see if there's some pikkies already available.
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