6 'Harmless' Fads That Caused Widespread Destruction
Fads are almost never a good thing, but rarely are they ever truly harmful. We dump a few hundred bucks into Tamagotchis, Beanie Babies, or Rubik's Cubes, and then the craze is over and we put all that crap in a shoebox to confuse our future grandchildren. However, some fads have poisoned thousands, started wars, and enslaved entire nations, all for the sake of some dumbass thing people wanted to ride, wear, or eat.
France's Radium Craze Makes Paris Radioactive
In 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium, which (as its name suggests) is an intensely radioactive element that will poison the nuclear titfarts out of any living thing that comes into prolonged contact with it. Radium would eventually become the basis for the development of radiotherapy as a cancer treatment, but back then, people didn't have any idea what it did. So, because it glowed in the dark and was discovered at a time when science was considered to be magic, people began putting radium in every goddamn thing they could think of (Marie Curie herself kept radioactive salts by her bedside, and Pierre carried a piece of it around in his jacket like a bone-jellying pocket watch).
Right next to his radium condoms for his other toxic bone-jelly.
And thus began a radioactive craze that hit Paris (and to a lesser extent, the rest of the world). For instance, radium became a trendy cure-all additive, because for some inexplicable reason people decided that it was an invigorating life tonic ("It HAS to do something! It glows!"). It found its way into everything from cough medicine to toothpaste, as well as topical ointments, chocolate bars, and anal suppositories intended to improve your sexual prowess (and while we cannot agree that it would improve your libido, we concede that shoving the blazing fury of an eternal atomic sun into your asshole would certainly do something to your underbelt region).
We're guess something like Taco Bell, but in reverse.
They even sold radium water, which is exactly what it sounds like -- radioactive vitamin water peddled with the most hilariously inaccurate slogan ever: "A cure for the living dead."
But Parisians were equally enamored with radium's DayGlo properties and used it to make luminescent paint for watch faces and instrument panels. It was even used in face creams, lipstick, and other types of makeup, because apparently having your face glow like the death angel at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark was a look that people appreciated in the early 20th century.
"Cancer? No, I'm a Leo."
It was all good fun, really. Except that ANDRA, the organization in charge of monitoring and handling France's radioactive waste, has identified 130 areas that still have enough trace radiation to be considered possible health risks. Most of these sites were tracked down using old advertising posters, which is the type of anthropological scavenger hunt we assumed would be left to aliens a few hundred years in the future.
Currently, ANDRA spends 4 million euros a year on decontamination, all because a few excitable Parisians got their hands on the most dangerous force in creation and smeared it all over everything like toddlers with finger paint.
The Victorian Craze for Green Dye Poisons Thousands
In the mid-1800s, Victorian England was hip-deep in a craze for Scheele's Green, a popular dye that stained everything the color of a Ninja Turtle's rippling bicep. Scheele's Green was used on everything -- clothing, accessories, toys, candles, curtains, and wallpaper were all considered in vogue if they carried the dark-green hue of a forest of Christmas trees. However, the primary ingredient in the dye is arsenic, which as some of you may be aware is a potent poison. People were literally coating their clothes, toys, and walls with an organ-liquefying metalloid.
"My ... kidneys ..."
"It's fine, just drink some radium water."
The worst part is, people knew damn well it was poisonous. The murderous properties of arsenic were well-known at that point, and its presence in Scheele's Green wasn't a secret. But for some inexplicable reason, that didn't stop anyone from using it to dye their furniture and drapery. It was even used in freaking food coloring. But the most rampant cause of accidental arsenic poisoning was the damned wallpaper -- toxic gas released by moisture compounding on the walls literally killed thousands of families, the end result of a series of decisions that quite possibly stand as the dumbest way anyone has ever died in the history of civilization.
"Paint the walls? Why, we'll just soak them all in poison! I literally see no downside to this."
See, the puffs of arsenic dust weren't something anyone had considered -- they all figured that, so long as nobody was licking the wallpaper, things would be fine. Unfortunately, even after the danger was revealed and many people, including Queen Victoria herself, tore out their green wallpaper, there's still plenty of it around. That's because the removal process itself is insanely dangerous.
Remember, moisture causes the wallpaper to release its deadly arsenic fartcloud, and the only way to remove wallpaper without burning down the house that contains it is to douse it with fluid and scrape it off, thereby releasing arsine gas. So now, over a hundred years later, people are still struggling with the aftereffects of the Scheele's Green fad, because every old-timey building shlocked in green wallpaper is essentially a giant gas chamber.
Although honestly, most old people's homes would smell like that regardless.
The British Tea Craze Floods China With Opium, Starts a War
Everyone knows that English people drink lots of tea. However, back in the 19th century, the majority of the British were crushing infinitely more booze, more so than at any other point in the nation's history.
And this was with only eight legal Churchill drinking years.
That's because gin was cheap and tea was ludicrously expensive. The tea had to be imported from China, and the Chinese ransomed every last ounce of it, refusing to trade it for anything less than silver. But when the temperance movement swept through England, the demand for tea blew up like Timothy Dalton at the end of The Rocketeer. Unfortunately, tea was still more expensive than a diamond-encrusted table lamp made of Pegasus bones, so how could British traders make tea more affordable to support the exploding trend? By swapping it for chests of opium, of course.
You see, opium was illegal in China, but there was still a powerful demand for it. And the British were harvesting huge quantities of pure Bengali Junk from India. So, millions of pounds of tea flooded into Britain, and in return China was awash in a sea of dazzling white lights.
Soon, just about everyone in China was addicted to opium -- almost 90 percent of all men under the age of 40 living along the coast were more or less perpetually high. The impacts were devastating, with addicts selling everything they owned to get their fix and the nation's economy grinding to a screeching halt.
"I could go to work today, but ... but I just don't care."
In 1839, the Chinese emperor decided to crack down on the illegal drug trade that was poisoning his country and raided several British traders, seizing thousands of chests of opium. The tea craze, which by this point had spread to every man, woman, and child on the British Isles, was suddenly cut off from its most viable means of supply. In response, England sent the fucking Royal Navy.
Sixteen British warships spent the next two years blasting their way up the Chinese coast to Shanghai, massacring somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 Chinese soldiers and losing only 69 men in the process (these staggering figures were due, in large part, to the fact that half of China was addicted to opium). The Chinese were forced to sign a treaty granting control of Hong Kong Island to the British and opening five ports for the continuation of the opium trade, as well as paying England for the cost of the war and the loss of income caused by the emperor's drug raids, all because English people wanted their goddamn tea.
Pictured: A perfectly reasonable response.
The Worldwide Love of Jeans Dyes China Blue
The market for denim is absurd -- in 2006, over $15 billion was spent on jeans alone, and that's not even factoring in jackets, skirts, accessories, or acid wash (which, while technically just a style of jeans, presumably occupies its own wedge on the pie chart). Like many commodities, denim production is outsourced to China -- specifically Xintang, which makes around 200 million pairs of jeans every year. And the combination of bleach and indigo dye used in the manufacturing process is poisoning the ballshits out of China's Pearl River, a 1,500-mile waterway that supplies drinking water to over 12 million people in Guangzhou.
Blue water is normally a good thing. Unless it looks like this, in which case it is a bad thing.
You see, the waste runoff from denim factories contains heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and selenium. Each one of those things is either a neurotoxin or a carcinogen on its own, but when piled together in a boiling stream of Smurf Piss, they essentially become a stew of brain-detonating cancer juice.
"You're welcome." -Levi Strauss
Chinese officials insist that there haven't been any reports of widespread illnesses from any of the countless population centers that depend on the Pearl River system for fishing, transportation, or drinking water, but churning out what is literally toxic waste into a major water system and dying it an unnatural blue that can be seen from space cannot possibly be a good thing.
The Romans' Love of Sugary Syrup Gives Them All Lead Poisoning
Food back in the day was horribly bland, but the ancient Romans discovered that if they took a bunch of fruit and boiled all the water out of it, they would be left with a really sweet syrup called defrutum, which sounds like a German fable about flesh-eating apple trees but is essentially just a sugar reduction. They put defrutum in everything, from meat to cheese to wine, and even used it as a preservative. Kind of like what we do with high fructose corn syrup now.
Judging by this article, there's no possible way for this to backfire on us.
The problem, however, wasn't rampant obesity, but that defrutum was made exclusively in lead pots and pans, because bronze or copper pots would taint the batch and make it taste like loose change on the floor of a taxicab. Modern re-creations of the fruit-boiling defrutum recipe, using the same type of lead cookware, created a substance containing more than 1,000 times the acceptable dose of lead. Meaning the majority of Rome was almost certainly suffering from chronic lead poisoning as a result of their defrutum addiction.
Lead poisoning has a number of effects, including weight loss, anemia, irritability, and delirium, so historians have started to make the connection that the widespread use of defrutum may have been the cause of some of the famed craziness and bizarre indulgences of certain Roman emperors. It seems particularly more likely when you consider that the emperor, of all people, would certainly be one to douse his flavorless lunch of goat-hoof porridge and chicken brains with the tangy sweet nectar of the gods and then wash it down with goblets of defrutum-laced wine.
"Hmmm ... fruity, with a mild undercurrent of psychosis."
What makes this situation even more ridiculous is that the Romans seemed to be completely aware that consuming too much lead could turn you into a gibbering weakling, shouting obscenities at ghosts and wearing a toga soaked in farts and confusion. However, by all accounts, they simply didn't give a shit (see arsenic, above).
The Demand for Rubber Bike Tires Leads to Genocide in the Congo
In the 1890s, bicycling fever reached epidemic levels in Europe and America, because the 19th century kind of sucked and people were ready to dive headfirst into whatever frivolity they could find. In the U.S., there was one bike for every seven Americans, and by 1895 cycling was so popular that the New York Times felt fully confident suggesting that anyone who didn't own a bicycle was either a cripple or hopelessly square.
"Why, if you don't cotton to the bicycle, then you're crackers, fella! Crackers!"
One cause for the surge in bike ownership was the invention of inflatable tires. Bikes had previously used wooden or metal wheels, and riding one of those would've been like piloting an El Camino down a brick-paved road on nothing but four bent, tarnished rims. But inflatable tires made bicycles awesome, and people bought them by the millions. So where do you get rubber for all those bike tires? By enslaving an African nation and making them harvest it for you, of course.
"Just once could white people try the non-slavery option?"
You see, King Leopold II of Belgium ruled over the Congo at the time, and used it primarily as a source for exporting ivory and rubber. And he was more than happy to meet the increasing demand for bicycle tires (and, later, automobile tires) by imposing strict rubber quotas on the Congolese people. If a village didn't produce a sufficient amount of rubber, Leopold would burn the village down, kill all their children, or cut off the workers' hands (or sometimes all three, because why the hell not).
It would remain Belgium's worst human rights crime until Jean-Claude Van Damme.
One former Belgian official went on record saying, "Everywhere I hear the same news of the Congo Free State -- rubber and murder, slavery in its worst form." Slavery was technically illegal in most parts of the world at the time, but Leopold kept the Congo so isolated (more so than it already was) by completely controlling all of the trade routes, essentially turning the entire area into one giant unregulated factory. During the golden age of cycling, the number of bicycles in the U.S. increased by over 10 million, and the population of the Congo decreased by nearly 10 million. It doesn't take a statistics professor to point out that these two figures are almost certainly related and not just a staggering coincidence.
Jack is a moderator in the Cracked Comedy Workshop, email him at email@example.com. When Paige Turner isn't writing about dicks on the Internet, she's ... writing about dicks elsewhere. Because everybody needs a hobby.
For more fads folks should've reconsidered, check out 6 Popular Fashion Trends (That Killed People) and 6 Weird Fashions From History (With Weirder Explanations).
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 3 Real Things We're Pretty Sure Are Cursed.
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