6 Hilarious Ways Our Ancestors Solved Everyday Problems
Humans are really good at improvising fixes to everyday dilemmas, as illustrated by the countless rolls of duct tape we use every year. But our ancestors lacked many of the basic resources that we take for granted (how did those poor saps get by without zip ties, anyway?), so they had to resort to some pretty bizarre methods to solve their problems. Remember, it's only a stupid solution if it doesn't work.
Turnspit Dogs Were Bred Solely To Cook Meat
The turnspit was the most important part of the kitchen throughout the Middle Ages, much like the Domino's speed dial button today. But someone had to constantly rotate the spit, a task that fell to the kitchen staff's lowliest member. But why waste a good peasant when you could make a new type of dog for the task? Yes, the Middle Ages thought of dogs like we think of robots -- the often poor, needlessly complicated solution to virtually every problem.
Described for the first time in 1576, the turnspit dog had a long body and stout, powerful legs. It had to be small so it could fit inside a wooden wheel attached to the turnspit by a chain. As the dog ran, it rotated the iron spit, leaving the kitchen staff free to prepare other food with their unwashed hands.
For the next 300 years, turnspit dogs powered kitchens of all sizes, roasting the meat, pressing the fruit, or churning the butter. They would generally come in pairs so one could work while the other rested, but they weren't cherished members of the household or anything. They were basically thought of as blenders with legs. Their treatment was part of what inspired activist Henry Bergh to start the ASPCA, after he witnessed turnspit dogs employed in a Manhattan hotel in the 1850s. They did get Sundays off to attend church, but only so they could serve as foot warmers. The breed eventually became a sign of poverty, and after a mechanical spit turner was invented, died out around 1900. There is only a single specimen still around today. His name is Whiskey, and he is preserved via taxidermy at Abergavenny Museum in Wales.
Before Purses, Chatelaines Held Everything A Woman Needed
19th-century women's clothing did not have pockets. So it was exactly like modern women's clothing. But the cavernous handbag hadn't yet come into vogue, so women had nowhere to keep their many daily tools. The solution? Dangle everything from a clip like a steampunk Juggalo.
The set of chains were called a chatelaine -- French for "mistress of the castle," in honor of the massive key rings held by the ladies of the grand estates. The chatelaine held all the items a "mistress of the house" would need: notebooks and pencils, scissors, scent bottles, penknives, tape measures, thermometers, sewing supplies, seals, and even a whistle.
Chatelaines gained popularity as both practical tools and fashion accessories, which led to a variety of styles. There were "mourning" chatelaines, sporting chatelaines for active lifestyles, and even this one inexplicably adorned with the creepy heads of soulless dogs.
Famous jewelers like Tiffany & Co. created luxurious versions to cash in on the craze, and miniatures were made as accessories for dolls.
Chatelaines were common enough that Punch (the Victorian version of The Onion) mocked their increasing complexity, and predicted that they'd eventually be used to leash children. Then one day somebody said, "I wish I just had, like, a bag for all this stuff," and the entire world slapped their foreheads simultaneously.
Fire Grenades Literally Fought Fire With Fire
1700s England was exceptionally flammable, which was why Ambrose Godfrey invented a handheld device back in 1723 that would allow civilians to quickly combat conflagrations. It was called the fire grenade, because ... well, that's exactly what it was. Godfrey's orb-like extinguisher contained a flame-suppressing liquid and a chamber full of gunpowder. When thrown into a blaze, the gunpowder would explode and scatter said liquid, putting out the fire.
If a fire broke out, old-timey citizens could grab their trusty Harden Star Hand Grenade or Red Comet Firemaster, which many homes and workplaces had hanging from wall brackets, then throw or roll it at the base of the flame -- ideally while shouting something like, "Hey fire, you're fired!" before slowly walking away from the explosion without looking back.
Innovations in fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems eventually pushed fire grenades out of favor. But it also didn't help that, like everything else made before about 1970, fire grenades were toxic. The flame-dousing carbon tetrachloride was already harmful, but high temperatures (such as those produced by, say, a fire) converted it to phosgene, a lung-destroying compound that would eventually be used as a chemical weapon in WWI. So we're much safer with the modern versions, but far less badass. Is it truly worth it?
Old Teacups Came With Mustache Guards
A 19th-century gentleman loved two things above all others: his mustache and his tea. But alas, they did not love one another. Drinking anything could mess up the mustache, and tea especially stained one's whiskers -- an irrevocable faux pas that probably warranted the death penalty back then. And so the mustachioed men of the 19th century lived under a dark shroud, until Englishman Harvey Adams invented the mustache cup in the 1870s.
It quickly spread throughout Europe, and numerous inventors patented similar devices in the following decades. For instance, there's the mustache spoon, which turned every bowl of soup into a full-day affair.
And with the detachable mustache guard, a gentleman about town could be ready no matter where a devious liquid should present itself.
Truly, it was a far more elegant age.
Medieval Libraries Chained Up Books To Prevent Theft
In Game Of Thrones, Sam travels to the Citadel to learn what he was already explicitly told two seasons ago, but is dismayed to find that all of their books are chained to the shelves like video games at Walmart.
That was a real anti-theft measure employed by ancient libraries to thwart the unscrupulous readers of days past. Back when they had to be laboriously written and copied by hand, a book could be worth as much as a farm. But unlike a farm, any urchin could swipe a book.
So from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, European libraries chained up their knowledge. England's Hereford Cathedral Library still displays its 229 books just as they were arranged from 1611 to 1841.
The chains were long enough to reach a nearby desk in every row, so one could take a book and sit down to read, but if you wanted to bring it to the bathroom, you'd need a hacksaw. As a further annoyance, the books were placed with their spines facing away from the reader to avoid tangling the chains. Although to be fair, it's not like medieval monks had dozens of Dean Koontz novels to choose from.
Ancient Greek And Roman Doctors Prescribed Electric Shocks ... From Fish
Electrotherapy as a medical practice goes back well over 2,000 years. Ancient people obviously didn't have electrical appliances, but they did have the next best thing: electric rays. Yes, just like in the cartoons.
The Greeks used these bad boys to numb the pain of operations and childbirth, which must have looked even more ridiculous than we're imagining it. In 46 CE, Scribonius Largus, physician of Roman Emperor Claudius, further pioneered the use of electric rays when he noted that an official was cured of gout after stepping on a live black torpedo fish. So the cure for gout became standing on a live black torpedo, on a wet beach, until the foot and leg were completely numb. Hopefully the ray would pause every few minutes to mug at the camera and mutter, "It's a living." Largus also used the rays to treat headaches. The protocol was the same -- stick this fish on your head, you idiot -- but he had nothing on 1st-century physician Dioscorides. He used the electric fish to treat anal prolapse.
Spits have come a long way since those doggos -- seriously, look at these modern rotisseries.
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