Thanks to time and progress, we've been able to shoot down a lot of the bad science that plagued the past. No more thinking the Earth is flat, believing women come from ribs, or burning witches at the stake for figuring out lifehacks against headaches. Yet nowhere has progress had a greater impact than on how we deal with our children. Back in the day, there were plenty of utterly insane parenting styles which would land people in jail now. Here are some of the most ridiculous ways we used to screw up parenthood. You'll be amazed we were able to keep progressing the species.

Victorians Would Camouflage Themselves As Creepy Furniture On Photo Day

In the days of yore, picture day wasn't only an excuse to skip out on class and make rude gestures at some underpaid photographer. It was serious business. Taking a photo was so expensive and time-consuming that having some fidgety kid ruin it could mean double shifts down in the mines and a single portion of gruel for the whole family. In fact, 19th-century parents would go to insane lengths to make sure their children sat precisely how they wanted them to.

In the olden days, having one's picture taken was quite a grueling affair. Exposure could take a long time to set in, up to 15 whole minutes. That's a quarter of an hour of sitting perfectly still so that you don't look like a blurry ghost haunting a nice fainting chair. This made taking pictures of small children almost impossible, as they tend to have the vigor and willpower of a hyperactive ferret. So the question became how to restrain one's child with a firm hand without having that firm hand pop up in the picture and ruining it. The answer was this:

6 Ways Being A Kid In The Past Was A Complete Nightmare
via The Guardian

Not the infant dress cut for someone six feet tall.

As your keen Holmesian eyes may have gathered, that chair looks a little ... people-shaped, doesn't it? That's right, a mother would disguise herself into the background of the photograph like the world's most overambitious spy, keeping her toddler in check and probably giving her child some real Freudian hang-ups about upholstery.

6 Ways Being A Kid In The Past Was A Complete Nightmare
via The Guardian

This photo was basically the Victorian version of the Ring video.

This phenomenon, known as the "invisible mothers," was de rigeur back in the day if you wanted a photograph of your child to cherish, albeit one in which it looks like they're being suffocated by the Grim Reaper's old-fashioned aunt, Maude Reaper.

6 Ways Being A Kid In The Past Was A Complete Nightmare
via The Guardian

The cowl is hand-crocheted, and her scythe is made of stale licorice.

19th-Century Parents Would Send Their Children Via The Postal Service

We often take for granted how easy it is to get places these days. Do your parents live across town? Jump in your affordable car. Grandparents on the other coast? Grab a seat on an affordable plane. Family in Alaska? Hell, they're all but giving Husky sleds away these days. But back in the day, people couldn't get around so easily, which was especially troublesome for young parents and their very immobile babies. But then, an unlikely government organization offered them a great alternative to traveling with kids, and all for the cost of a stamp.

6 Ways Being A Kid In The Past Was A Complete Nightmare
Smithsonian Institution

"No way. No one would ever do something this stupid." -- you, seconds before remembering what country you live in

One of the greatest innovations of the U.S. Post Office was the addition of parcels in 1913. No longer did people have to stuff books into envelopes and pretend they'd only written the world's most convoluted letter. As long as your parcel was under 11 pounds, the Parcel Post would ship it. That was the Post Office's big mistake. As it happens, a lot of babies weigh under 11 pounds, and there were plenty of cheapskate parents out in the sticks who would abuse the hell out of that loophole.

That was the story of James Beagle, an eight-month-old boy who was literally shipped off to his grandmother -- who was thankfully only a few miles away. Still, his parents thought that paying 15 cents was a better deal than the wasted time and worn shoes they'd get walking him over. They did insure little James for $50, sending a clear message to the postmen of "You break him, you buy him."

Perhaps amused by this gross neglect, parents across the country followed suit, and the brief trend was extensively documented in the newspapers. That is, until June 1913, when the postmaster general officially prohibited the sending of children through the mail system. It was a pain for parents, but an absolute godsend for the postmen who were tired of lugging around smelly babies. After all, they weren't allowed to change their diapers -- opening mail is a federal offense.

Medieval Parents Used To Mold Their Babies Using Swaddling

Naturally, parents want their children to turn out the best that they possibly can. Even the most carefree parents would prefer that their offspring be the first in their family to get a PhD, and not the first to get banned from several popular restaurant chains. So how do you tip the odds? By correcting behavior, encouraging ambition, and a whole lot of other pop psychology, for starters. In those and many other ways, parents have been molding their children since the beginning of time -- except that they used to take that molding a bit too literally.

In Medieval England, there existed a medical theory that newborn babies had a malleable body type, like Play-Doh, which tended to curl into a ball-like shape. In order to prevent that, mothers would swaddle their babies in tight linen papooses as a way of stretching their spines and their limbs out, believing that this would result in a tall, normal-looking child -- though we're sure there were plenty of fathers who wanted to leave their kid unswaddled just to see what happened.

But if children are made out of putty, why stop at correcting bad posture? Medieval parents quickly figured that some extra manipulation would ensure long arms and legs, so they'd pull and hold their little babies' limbs like they were tiny Stretch Armstrongs. And since being handsome is always a plus in life, they also routinely pinched and pulled and tweaked the nose and cheeks and ears and lips until the child hardened into a fine adult / clay ashtray.

6 Ways Being A Kid In The Past Was A Complete Nightmare

A whole new meaning to "little bundle of joy."

Not only was the practice useless and painful for the child, but it was also bad for its development. Not changing the bonds daily (which no Medieval parent did) caused all kinds of sores. And in their rush to make sure that their children came out child-shaped, some mothers would also swaddle them too tightly and cause them to suffer from circulatory problems, chafing, and a heap of dermatological nightmares. Nothing some extra swaddling couldn't buff out, though.

"Twilight Sleep" Was Pure Horror

Moms, what is the worst part of being a mom? Is it letting go on the first day of school? Is it the fear when they're not home by curfew? Is it having to boil all your towels the moment those little masturbating monsters hit puberty? Wrong, the worst part of motherhood is the pain of squeezing a screaming melon from between your legs whilst everyone in the maternity room stares at your hooha. However, thanks to the miracle of modern medicine, there are many ways of dealing with the pain and discomfort. But what about your grandmother's generation? Well, the good news is that they too had a chemical concoction which blocked out the pain of childbirth. The bad news? It kind of made mothers go insane.

In 1914, the three hottest trends in Europe were smoking opium, getting machine-gunned in a trench, and "a new and painless method of childbirth." This new procedure, known as "twilight sleep," was made possible through a mixture of morphine and scopolamine -- the former for pain and the latter for memory. That's right, the whole point was not only to endure the grueling burden of giving birth, but also to forget that the ghastly affair ever happened at all. Women would simply wake up the next day and some nurse would drop a baby into their arms, assuring them it had plopped out of them mere hours before.

Giving birth while you sleep sounds like a pretty sweet deal -- except that it wasn't, for any of the parties involved (except the doctors, naturally). There's this little thing mothers need to do called bonding, which is tricky when you get introduced to your baby via a nurse like she's trying to set you two up on a blind date. Twilight sleep mothers offered suffered from dissociation, wherein they couldn't recognize their children, often leading to postnatal depression, delusions, and a whole host of psychological problems quickly passed on from one generation to the next.

And to make matters worse, after twilight sleep wards were set up across the U.S., it soon became apparent that the practice wasn't even truly painless, either. As it turned out, all it really did was mind-wipe new mothers without making their birthing much less horrible. In fact, it did the exact opposite, removing their willpower to deal with the situation, often causing them to freak out. Every hospital that offered twilight sleep quickly turned into a haunted house, as its corridors were filled with the sound of soon-to-be-mothers screaming for their lives. And as the drug cocktail was so shit at numbing them out that these mothers were either strapped to their hospital beds using leather straps or were put into a straitjacket and forced to give birth in padded cells.

6 Ways Being A Kid In The Past Was A Complete Nightmare

6 Ways Being A Kid In The Past Was A Complete Nightmare

To children and nightmares.

Naturally, as this became common knowledge (and some poor woman died), twilight sleep lost its popularity, vanishing completely by the middle of the 20th century. It's a good thing it didn't last until the days of dads taping the birth -- otherwise it would have spontaneously invented the found footage horror genre.

Old-Timey Parenting Books Were Full Of Dangerous Nonsense

Having kids is hella hard. They're the most complicated animals in the world to raise, but their operating manual is never included. That's why, over the centuries, an entire industry has been built around informing new parents how to deal with their stinking, screaming bundles of joy. Ironically, these guides had some teething problems of their own.

Pocket Books

It's not limited to the stupid ages, either. Child-endangering horseshit is evergreen.

During the 19th century, many guides for new mothers were published containing a lot of, to put it politely, fucking batshit crazy guesswork. Do you want a healthy baby? Better align their sleeping position due north so that they're in sync with "great electrical currents ... coursing in one direction around the globe." That way, according to 1878's The Physical Life Of Woman, those currents can synergize with your baby's central nervous system and supercharge them to the max.

And you don't want your babies to become ugly, right? Searchlights On Health: The Science Of Eugenics had an easy answer: Don't think about uggos. A pregnant woman should banish all thoughts of the ugly "or those marked by any deformity or disease." How do you not think of something just mentioned in what you're reading? Good question. Also, if you're a pregnant woman and you're reading this, good luck with your hideous child.

Meanwhile, in the best-selling The Mother And Her Child, two doctors recommend you "handle the baby as little as possible." If it (and they are definitely an "it" here) cries, you should let it happen. After all, crying is "absolutely essential to the development of good strong lungs." You want your kids to have good strong lungs, don't you? Well, let 'em weep ... But not so much that they start to choke and burst the blood vessels in their face, in which case you should spank them for having the dishonor to nearly die in the midst of a life lesson.

And to make sure they don't go soft after they've screamed themselves strong, you should also never, ever hug a child, and only kiss them once a day (maximum) before bedtime. Remember, parents, an emotionally dead child is an obedient child, so greet them in the morning with a firm and hearty handshake to let them know you respect and care for them in the same way you would an out-of-town business associate you haven't seen in four years.

Better Healthcare Through Getting Kids Wasted

So you've tried everything. You tried binding their limbs, ignoring their cries, even beating them senseless, but none of that stellar parenting has done the trick. You're still coming home to a sickly, unruly child who thinks of you as a malicious stranger out to ruin their life -- but not in a good way. Well, have you tried pumping them full of opium?


If your kid was born before World War I, the answer was "Yes," whether you knew it or not.

During the 1800s, drugging your children was the most socially responsible thing a parent could do. According to doctors, it cured every infant ailment, from fever to night terrors to full-scale tuberculosis. Opium was the most popular medication for the young and old alike, because it couldn't be bad taking something that made you feel sooooo good. Medicine such as Stickney and Poor's Pure Paregoric (a cold syrup) contained 46 percent alcohol and "one and three-sixteenth grains of opium to each fluid ounce" -- a ratio you wouldn't think to find outside of an Afghan warlord's bathroom cabinet. And in case parents were a bit worried about, y'know, pumping their little ones with so much smack they'd start overdosing like they were in Trainspotting, the bottles came equipped with a handy-dandy chart listing the "correct" dose for everyone from adults all the way down to five-day-olds.

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"If you see yourself crawling over the ceiling toward a Scottish smackhead, reduce your dosage."

But what if your kids were the fussy types who didn't like the bitter taste of uncut opium? Well, you could also buy opium cough drops flavored with the refreshing taste of cherry. Of course, having six-month-olds chase the dragon caused some mild addiction problems, but parents who are cool with pumping their babies full of class A narcotics are typically not parents who bother knowing the difference between overly fussy babies and babies showing hardcore signs of withdrawal.

Not that opium was the only way parents used to let kids live it up like they were on tour with Guns N' Roses. During the gin craze of the mid-1700s, English parents let their offspring get sloshed on up to half a pint of cheap gin every day, we guess because they preferred the sound of loud sea shanties over crying. Of course, these were the days of child labor as well, so maybe it's more a case of seven-year-olds, fresh from a shift down in the mines, stopping at their local for a quick pint before they had to get back to the ol' mom and chain.

Adam Wears is on Twitter and Facebook. He also has a newsletter about depressing history, but that's only for the coolest kids.

There are much better books about child care these days, but we're not qualified to suggest any so don't forget to introduce your kids to all things Dr. Suess. Also please don't ever try to mail your baby.

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