#3. Sick Kids Had to Go to School Outside, in Winter
Behold the magnificent installations of the St. James' Park Open-Air School in London, one of the many educational establishments from a hundred years ago that intentionally exposed kids to the elements, all year long, due to a tragic misunderstanding of how medicine works. Before the discovery of antibiotics, doctors pretty much took their best guess and made shit up about how to cure disease. To treat tuberculosis, for example, the thinking was that plenty of fresh air, all the time, would fix those lungs right up. For kids, especially those in the inner city, this meant "no heating for you."
Naturally, this custom also found its way to the New World, because we couldn't let those Brits prove that they cared more about the children than us (and if we did so while saving on utility bills, even better) -- here's a school in Minnesota with a troubling lack of walls, made even more troubling by the fact that it's winter:
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Turns out kids behave a whole lot better when their butts are literally frozen to the seats.
Making matters worse, it was precisely the kids identified as being weak or sickly who were sent to the open-air schools, because apparently science hadn't quite made the connection between constant cold and the little brats getting even sicker than before.
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Pneumonia seemed a fair trade for tuberculosis, apparently.
They weren't completely heartless in the pursuit of fresh air, though: Parents could buy or make "sitting-out bags" to keep the kids warm(ish). Of course, like everything else in the olden days, these primitive Snuggies sound fairly miserable, being "made of a brown, pliable, hairy, felt-like cloth." So, yeah, we're not sure what's worse: doing math while warding off hypothermia or spending all day inside an early 20th century version of a hollowed-out Mr.Snuffleupagus.
#2. Early 1900s Kids Played on Death Traps
No, that's not a Vietnam-era military training camp -- that's what playgrounds looked like in the early 1900s. Putting children on top of that flimsy structure may seem grossly irresponsible to you, but don't worry: It's close enough to the utility pole that if one of those kids falls, he could simply grab on to the power lines.
These early playgrounds were actually created to make the kids' lives less dangerous. In the 19th century, child labor laws had ruined the party for factories that employed young children, so cities like New York were suddenly full of idle little kids trying to amuse themselves with dead cats in alleyways or dead hobos in vacant lots. And so, to improve the almost completely crappy lives of children living in inner city tenements, social groups began to build public places specifically designed for kids to play in. Even Teddy Roosevelt backed the playground movement, writing, "City streets are unsatisfactory playgrounds for children because of the danger." (For once, "the danger" wasn't a code name for his mustache.)
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Presumably the slide ends in a pool of crocodiles.
Of course, being old-timey, what was considered a safe place for kids to play was wildly different from today. Take Hiram House, built in 1896 in Cleveland to offer social services to the poor. Rather than the quaint little playhouses of today, the Hiram House playground depicted at the top of this entry consisted of "makeshift wooden structures" -- please note how the kids were supposed to slide down on two separate wooden poles with absolutely no protection underneath. Apparently the pre-eminent philosophy in playground design back then was simply "Eh, just give them little shits something to climb."
Efforts to keep kids from getting high were about as successful then as now.
#1. 9-Year-Olds Volunteered for the Civil War
No, that's not a kid playing Civil War dress-up. That's little Johnny Clem, and he didn't exactly buy that outfit at Toys "R" Us: He actually wore it, or one like it, on a battlefield when he personally shot down a Confederate colonel (the records don't specify where, but judging by his height, we're guessing it was somewhere painful). How the hell is that possible outside of video games? Because, although the age for enlistment for drummer boys and such during the Civil War was officially 16, the enlistment officers were willing to look the other way and often let kids as young as 9 years old volunteer.
"You're about 54 between all of you combined, right? Yeah, good enough."
Drummer boys weren't just adorable mascots tucked safely back at camp, either. They were smack dab in the middle of battle because, lacking walkie-talkies, their drum calls told the troops important stuff like when to advance, start firing, and break for lunch. And, yep, they were sometimes targeted -- the opposing sides knew perfectly well that taking the drummer boy out meant eliminating the commander's communication with his troops, and unfortunately the drums didn't offer a whole lot of protection. In fact, it was because of the distressing number of casualties in this sector that the (not expertly enforced) 16-year-old minimum age rule was created ... in 1864, only a year before the war ended.
Besides Johnny Clem, the second most famous drummer boy is probably Robert Henry Hendershot, who was 10 when he joined up; at the ripe old age of 12, he supposedly captured a Rebel soldier during the Battle of Fredricksburg and was discharged after being wounded two days later in another battle.
The wound was tendinitis from playing too hard.
Hendershot was accused of being a fraud later in life, but Clem's awesomeness was confirmed by pretty much everyone who knew him. He saw action at Perryville, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw, and Atlanta, was wounded twice, and legend says that when an enemy colonel told him to surrender, Johnny said nothing and simply shot him with his cute little sawed-off musket. He was discharged from the Army as a sergeant ... at age 13.
Did you know that gun manufacturer Remington is responsible for your keyboard layout? In our latest podcast, hosts Michael Swaim and Jack O'Brien look at the bizarre origin stories that shaped the modern world. Go here to subscribe on iTunes or download it here. Getting your Cracked fix while driving has never been this unlikely to kill you.
Related Reading: Kids today can be pretty badass too. Check out this 13-year-old bullfighter and tell us you aren't impressed. Then check out this kid-focused revolver ad and appreciate just how fucking crazy our grandparents were. And have you heard about the Wonder Twins of Terrorism? If not, read this!