The past is not short on nightmarish images, crushing oppression, weird customs, and horrifying practices that make you want to put a hand on the past's shoulder and say, "Oh no, honey, no, please don't do that; you look ridiculous, and I'm concerned for you." Here are some of them.
4 1890s Australia's "Whale Cure"
Hello, welcome to the last moment of your life where you don't know what a "whale cure" is.
Go ahead, savor it.
During the last decade of the 19th century, Australian health experts decided it might be great if everybody with achy joints climbed into dead beached whales for up to 30 hours at a time, all the while inhaling gusts of ammonia gas escaping its bloated corpse. It was believed this would relieve symptoms for up to a year.
William Ralston/The Graphic
Suddenly going to the walk-in clinic doesn't seem so bad.
In order to cure rheumatism, Australians in 1896 were gaga for the latest craze in "Oh my God who would do that" curatives, known as the whale cure. There was no scientific evidence that it worked, but people claimed to "feel better after being in the whale," as put by Michelle Linder, who curated an exhibit on the short-lived practice at an Australian museum. Australian writer Louis Becke describes the experience thusly: "Sometimes the patient cannot stand this horrible bath for more than an hour, and has to be lifted out in a fainting condition, to undergo a second, third, or perhaps fourth course on that or the following day."
William Ralston/The Graphic
"See! I'm perfectly fine!
"That dismount was shit. Fifth course."
And who needs scientists when whalemen exist: "The latter is closed up as closely as possible, otherwise the patient would not be able to breathe through the volume of ammoniacal gases which would escape from every opening left uncovered. It is these gases, which are of an overpowering and atrocious odour, that bring about the cure, so the whalemen say."
Thank you, whalemen! Hey whalemen: Don't do that. Why? Because it was not based in any kind of science and had no proven results. But mostly because it's really, really gross.
I guess if your joints are aching and no one's invented ibuprofen yet, the overpowering smell of rotting sea mammal is better than ... not that?
3 Putting Arsenic Every-Fucking-Where
OK fine, so maybe we still use harmful chemicals everywhere, and maybe BPA and Splenda and parabens are killing us. But if that turns out to be true, at least they do it slowly. Back in the day (you know the one), people would just straight-up continue inhaling lethal dust, buying tainted toys, and painting their faces with heavy metals until they goddamn died. We're all well acquainted with lead and why it's messed up, but let's take a second to appreciate its bookish older sister, arsenic. This substance damages the central nervous system of all mammals, destroys red blood cells, and is lethal in small doses. So people have always avoided it, right? Wrong.
People. Used. Arsenic. Everywhere.
Is modern-day food dye good for you? Probably not. But on the level that Gwyneth Paltrow doesn't feed it to her kids, not on the level that those same kids would probably die if they ate it. Scheele's Green was a pigment used in the 19th century in everything from clothes to wallpaper to food. It was a much brighter green than the other dyes of the time were able to achieve. The only downside was that it was made of arsenic. A bunch of children died at a Christmas party because one of the adults was all, "Hey, let's light some festive candles that are also full of arsenic because we hate children!" Women dropped dead after dancing in arsenic-laden green dresses. People made paper and silk flowers with Scheele's Green and put those flowers on their heads and poisoned the shit out of themselves. All in the name of a slightly more vibrant green dye.
One of these ladies' fathers owns the moon. The other is about to own a funeral bill.
There were no consumer advocacy groups back then, and we were just beginning to use and understand mass-produced chemicals, and people died more frequently, so it's understandable that the vast majority of consumers weren't able to separate themselves from harmful substances. But my main point is, if a whole bunch of kids die, maybe don't use those kinds of candles anymore? Scheele's Green was around long enough to take out hundreds of children, sicken thousands of adults, and maybe even slowly murder Napoleon, whose room in Saint Helena had green walls tainted with the stuff.
It wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that an Italian scientist bothered to take a look at the compound under a microscope and discovered its toxic components, so all those ding-dongs get a pass for not realizing it contained arsenic. But that doesn't explain why people still ate arsenic when it was clearly labeled "arsenic."
Only slightly less appealing than Necco Wafers.
That's right, apparently people thought they could make their skin more beautiful by eating poison, going by the old "the burning sensation means it's working!" rule. Several brands, including a few that trumpeted the beauty cred of being from France, arose with the promises of reducing pimples, blackheads, fine lines, dark spots, under-eye circles, and some horrifying conditions called "moth patches" and "bad blood." Although the wafers did specifically state not to eat too many of them, users ended up losing their hair, which is one way to make people focus on your skin. Oh, they also lost their red blood cells. Arsenic -- it's a hell of a drug.
Still, some desperados used arsenic specifically because of its harmful effects.
This woman committed suicide by putting white arsenic in her vagina. Which is like ... don't do that? Don't do that.
But these guys killed their wives by fingering them with an arsenic-covered hand. Which is also, we can all agree, very don't do that. Like, fully do not do that.