6 Nightmarish Things People Did for Fun Before Electricity
People of the past didn't sit around looking bored and waiting for someone to invent the Wii. Don't be fooled by the stuffy portraits: old-timey folks still liked to party. It's just that their parties usually revolved around corpses and ferns and strange hermits. So if you want to accurately party like it's 1899, here are some themes to choose from:
Victorians Held Mummy Defiling Parties
Today, having an "Egyptian-themed" party means extra eyeliner, "pyramid-shaped" tortilla chips, and a Bangles CD on repeat. In the Victorian era, party organizers took authenticity more seriously. It just wasn't a good time unless you and all of your guests unwrapped a real mummified corpse, freshly pilfered from Egyptian tombs. They called these events mummy unwrapping parties or "unrollings."
"And it's ... another corpse! Wow! What will the next one have inside?"
In the 19th century, Britain was going through an extreme Egyptomania phase, and mummies became just another souvenir for travelers to bring home. They brought back possibly cursed ancient corpses like you'd bring back an "I Got Lucky in Reno" T-shirt. Eventually demand became so high that the locals began mummifying criminals just to sell them off as Pharaoh's cousins twice removed. Hey, you try being six days deep into serious mummy withdrawals; you wouldn't be picky either.
The parties were pioneered by noted mummy enthusiast Thomas Pettigrew, a distinguished surgeon and antiquarian whose corpse-poking festivities were sold-out events. But while mummy unwrapping began as scientific in nature, like The Learning Channel, it soon devolved into an ungodly freakshow that spat down the throat of basic human decency. Also like The Learning Channel.
They went from Reunification of Egypt's Middle Kingdom to Here Comes Honey Khufu.
It got so bad that guests would sometimes take devotional talismans, linens, or even bones home as party favors. Do you want the next six generations of your family to be cursed? Because that's how you get the next six generations of your family cursed.
Related: Mummies Got Packed With Mummy Snacks
British Folks Died for Their Extreme Fern Collections
The wildest craze of the Victorian era led to crime sprees, illicit romances, and even one fight with an Apache tribe. That craze was ... fern collecting. Seriously. The British would organize into hunting packs and go on grand adventures solely to satisfy their passion for your neglected office plant.
While wearing what was then called "camping clothes."
It started when Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward invented a case that could keep exotic plants alive in foggy old England. Soon, his assistant was spreading rumors that fern collecting both showed intelligence and improved your, uh ... what's the delicate way to say this? Dick strength? Yeah, they believed that ferns improved your dick strength. There, surely nobody's sensibilities are offended by that phrasing.
Later, Ward's neighbor published A History of British Ferns, which further insisted that, among many other benefits, ferns could cure madness. Their proto-marketing scheme paid off, and ferns became a status symbol.
"Rosalind, what a fetching ensemble! I particularly enjoy the way your dress looks like fucking dirt."
Certain species of non-native ferns could fetch up to the Victorian equivalent of 1,000 pounds. But nothing compared with hunting down the wild fern yourself. Large parties were organized, and fern hunters competed to find the rarest specimen. Such a dangerous sport was naturally pursued by hardcore athletes willing to die for the ultimate rush: finding a goddamn fern somewhere. At least two people fell off cliffs while fern-collecting. Newlywed fern fanatics John and Sarah Lemmon allegedly fought off Apache Indians on their honeymoon, just to secure a rare type of fern. They fought Apaches for a plant. If we ever have children, we won't love them nearly as much as the British loved ferns.
Wait, so it was basically like Pokemon? OK, we get it now.
Visit an Insane Asylum, Poke the Patients With a Stick
Bored with ferns? Sick to death of mummies? Why not stroll down to the local asylum and poke a maniac with a stick? This, believe it or not, was a viable family activity back in 17th-century London. Lunatic asylums back in the day were less treatment facilities and more "improv reenactments of Dante's Inferno." But apparently they were jolly fun to watch from the outside, judging by the popularity of Bedlam, Bethlem Royal Hospital's "come and fuck with a mental patient" program.
Bedlam: "You don't have to be crazy to visit here, just a dick."
Bedlam was severely underfunded, so they decided to open their doors to the public in order to demonstrate how much their generous donations were needed. Naturally, it didn't take long for the noble idea to devolve into a human petting zoo. We weren't kidding about the sticks, by the way -- visitors could bring their own poking instruments and use them to piss off whichever inmate looked like he hated sticks the most.
Adult babies were popular madmen to provoke, but smart folks left the "violin player wearing a book as a hat" types alone.
It helped that back then many people considered madness a punishment for sin. Furthermore, the asylum was a place where you could come see nudity, depravity, and violence and be considered a philanthropist for it. Soon, for the price of a penny -- free on Tuesday evenings, bring the kids! -- as many as 96,000 people a year went to the insane asylum to watch the inmates like you'd watch America's Funniest Home Videos. Visitors were also allowed to shout or throw things at the patients, because fuck it -- you're already going to hell for mocking the disabled. Might as well try for a seat right next to the devil.
The Hottest Sport in America Was Competitive Walking
For much of the 19th century, America's favorite spectator sport was pedestrianism -- literally, competitive walking. To our ADD-riddled modern-day brains, competitive walking sounds about as exciting as, well, competitive walking. But back in the day, pedestrianism drew huge crowds, gave rise to superstars, and even featured the first doping scandals -- a requisite for all great sports.
Ah, the classic Dick-Blower match.
Pedestrianism caught on in the USA thanks to Edward Payson Weston, the gentleman with the cane in the above illustration. In 1860, Weston made a bet with a friend, wherein he agreed to walk all the way from Boston to Washington if he lost. The bet? That Abraham Lincoln would lose the presidential elections. When Lincoln won (sorry if we just spoiled your textbook), Weston honored his promise. People were so impressed that Weston became the first superstar in a new world of brisk walking. Dude was the Michael Jordan of putting one foot in front of the other ... or at least the Barry Bonds, since Weston was later accused of chewing coca leaves to keep up his tempo.
The first pedestrianism events were ultra-marathons in which contestants would march for months, stopping only to sleep and, hopefully, poop. They even had to eat on the go, but the reward was worth it: prizes could reach $20,000 (for the British, that's about 20 ferns). Eventually, entrepreneurs started building circular racetracks inside tents and buildings so the fans would have a place to watch.
Dizziness from watching such excitement gave dozens the vapors.
And the fans were intense. In 1879, a riot broke out in New York when there wasn't enough room for the gathered crowd to watch the competitive walkers. Formal races could last only six days, because the seventh day would be a Sunday, and people were so nuts for watching dudes stroll that they would apparently risk offending God if you gave them the option.
Owning a Live Ornamental Garden Hermit
There you are, entertaining some guests in your garden when, suddenly, an unwashed old man in a bizarre costume comes stumbling out of the vegetation. Your friends are shocked. They demand an explanation. "Oh, that?" you say, coyly. "That's just my very own garden hermit."
"I call him Kermit. Kermit the Hermit."
Silence. You can feel their judging eyes upon you.
"Is this weird?" you think. "Goddamn it, that woman at the homeless shelter was right -- this is a weird thing."
And then all of your friends break out in thunderous applause.
Then poke him with a cane. All old-timey folks carried canes.
Yes, ornamental hermits were a huge, hip fad in 1700s England. It's as straightforward as you think:
Step one, hire an elderly man to occupy a cabin or cave on your property and actually live like an unwashed medieval hermit for, oh, seven years is a good start. Bonus points if he dresses up like he lost a fight with an Ent -- all branches and acorns everywhere, mud in his hair. That's hermit chic, right there.
Step two, have people over.
Step three, show them your hermit.
Step four, reap the accolades as women's corsets explode with lust for you while men twist their mustaches in furious jealousy.
Or go get some lovin' from the hermit directly. We're not here to judge.
For his services, a hermit could be paid up to 600 pounds, or around $180,000 in today's money. But that sweet hermit-game demands sacrifices. A British politician named Charles Hamilton put an ad in the paper asking for an ornamental hermit. He specified that the hermit "shall be provided with a Bible" and other essential items, but also that "never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton's grounds, or exchange one word with the servant." Despite that, there were still people willing to become living garden decorations even in the next century, as this advert from 1810 demonstrates:
This is either asking for a hermit or a really chill male prostitute.
Collecting Body Parts
Today, collecting body parts makes you a terrible psychopath. At various points throughout history, it just made you terribly fashionable. You know how it is when you get into a new hobby: you start off with just a tooth or two, but soon you're blowing half your entertainment budget on Cabinets of Curiosities full of skeletons, tumors, and deformed fetuses.
Aka "The pantry."
Some body parts were so popular, they had whole parties thrown just for them. Our friend Thomas "The Mummy Taunter" Pettigrew did it again when he acquired the head of Yagan, an indigenous Australian rebel leader killed by bounty hunters. Pettigrew decorated the head with cords and feathers, tastefully displayed it in front of a specially commissioned painting, and then invited his friends over to gawk at it.
"Feathers! Those certainly make him look like a native of some kind."
So ... Pettigrew was clearly a warlock, right? Somebody called the guy out on that, yeah? No? We'll burn the lady with too many cats, but the dude throwing skull parties with corpse pinatas is just a party animal? You're the worst, history.
For more reasons our ancestors were insane, check out 8 Terrifying Instruments Old-Time Doctors Used on Your Junk and 26 Old-Timey Ads for Modern Products.
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