6 Status Symbols From The Past (That Now Seem Totally Ridiculous)
Many years ago, some caveman found a rock so shiny that it put every other rock in his village to shame. Our unnamed protagonist was probably trampled to death by a mastodon, but the fact remains that people take obscene pride in owning what's rare and valuable. Think back to how ...
People Used To Rent And Display A Single Pineapple
If you'd never seen a pineapple before and someone showed it to you for the first time, you'd think that thing was weird. It looks like a rock from some alien planet or maybe a cyclops's egg. The earth, famous for cabbages and radishes and cow dung, isn't supposed to produce that sort of marvel naturally. So thought the people of Europe anyway when the fruit showed up from overseas, starting with one lone surviving pineapple carried by Columbus.
Over the next few centuries, imported pineapples were rare and exotic and therefore expensive. Very expensive -- a single pineapple cost like thousands of pounds. That made it an incredibly extravagant food, but also just having one, whether or not you ate it too, was something to brag about. And so the very rich would rent a pineapple, to walk around with or to display as a centerpiece at parties, protected by armed guards. The rental company would then take the pineapple back and rent it to someone else with too much money, then someone else, until the fruit rotted and fell apart.
In time, England realized they could grow their own pineapples instead of shipping it in from mythical islands. But at first, this didn't lower the price at all. Rather than industrial operations mass producing pineapples, people had to build their own hothouses and raise their pineapples over the course of many years, and this worked out even more expensive than buying the imported fruit, leaving each homegrown pineapple costing the 1600s equivalent of 10,000 pounds. King Charles II had himself painted with the first pineapple raised locally, a pineapple that, according to forensic horticultural historians, was not actually planted locally at all.
The price of pineapples did plummet, thanks to improved transportation methods including the rise of steamships. And the wealthy, who still had engraved pineapples in their mansions' woodwork, were horrified to see the fruit become as cheap as the potato and soon gobbled up by poor people. It would be like today seeing lobsters worth almost nothing and eaten by the absolute lowest in society ... which is actually how it used to be, before everyone realized chitinous sea horrors are delicious.
The Colors Red And Purple Were Super Valuable (Because They Were Made From Bug Guts)
People today take color for granted. You have a screen in front of you that can mix lights together and produce any color in existence, right, and because people can make any color, they often don't bother making any. That's why we have digital movies today where everything's a flat gray, or when people want to get really classy, they make things black.
But, believe it or not, your phone can't produce the greatest colors out there. If you don't believe us, go to a museum and look at some oil paintings and stained glass -- or, well, just wait till the next phone comes out and claims to have colors so good that yours look like crap. So yeah, color may be underrated now. It's also possible, however, for people to go a little too nuts over color. What's your reaction upon seeing this little guy?
If you were the Spanish conquistadors, you would react with delight and greed. Because that bug is the cochineal, the source of a prized shade of red. The dye was used for European officers' robes, the clothing of kings (and a while afterward, for the first American flags). The red substance made from crushing the bugs became the Spanish's most valuable export from America, after silver. Pirates attacked their ships, tried to steal the expensive insects, and tried to breed them. That didn't turn out so well for them. The insects died outside of the Mexican climate, as did the cacti they fed on.
And how do you feel about the following shades of purple?
It might not look so exciting now, but Tyrian purple was once even more royal than cochineal red. This dye too was worn by kings and judges, and in ancient Greece, if you weren't part of the elite, the law outright banned you from wearing it. The purple dye was very expensive, worth as much per ounce as gold. The source of the purple was not quite as classy as its final form, though. Purple came from snail ass snot.
The dye was made from a mucous gland located behind the rectums of sea snails. People long ago -- over 3,500 years ago -- collected these glands, dried them, and crushed them to make the dye. They had to rip open tens of thousands of snail butts to get enough dye for even a little bit of cloth. But that was our only source of deep purple. Until the 19th century, when a scientist was working on a cure for malaria, accidentally stained his test tube, and discovered the color mauve. He abandoned medicine and spent the rest of his days researching new ways to make clothes fabulous.
Books Were So Prized, They Needed To Be Chained Down
We've mentioned previously that books used to rare and expensive, but we'd like to focus now on one weird consequence of how much people valued books: library management. Because libraries have existed just about as long as the written word has, especially if you count "monasteries full of scrolls" as libraries. For a while, each scroll would lie on its own desk, under the eye of a single monk. As the books grew slightly in number, each desk would have multiple books, but chains would hold them down so you couldn't grab one and run. The chains were attached to the books' spines. Now you know why books have spines and aren't just sheaves of papers stapled together.
As books increased still more in number, they moved from being displayed flat on desks to sitting tight on shelves. But they were still chained. And since the chains attached to the spines, that meant the spines faced the back of the shelf, and when you looked at the books, you'd just see the side with all the pages, known as the "fore-edge."
So how did you have any idea what book you were taking out then? Answer: With great difficulty. There was always the option, though, of printing the titles on the fore-edge. We can't find many examples of that, but we do see examples of paintings on the fore-edge. Though soft paper is more delicate than the spine, these paintings last centuries, unless you're one of those nuts who keep flipping pages against your nose so you can smell them.
Cacao Was Rare, Used As Currency, And Counterfeited
Before the days of central banking and governments creating money through the power of economancy, a society using a material as currency was the highest honor they could give it. The valuable metals gold and silver of course have storied histories as coinage, and Roman soldiers were once paid in precious salt (this is where the word "salary" comes from). For the peoples of Mesoamerica, cacao beans were a form of currency. Archaeologists have even found evidence of counterfeit cacao beans -- preserved seeds that look like money but turn out to be made of clay.
When our dye-loving friends the Spanish conquistadors came to America, they heard tales of cacao being an aphrodisiac and medicine, and some officers were said to drink 50 cups a day. It's entirely possible that this was bullshit, a combination of lies told by the Spanish and lies told to the Spanish. But the Maya did treat a drink made from cacao like we might treat a fine wine. Rich people were buried with cacao pots, and huge stores of cacao were used for wedding dowries. Chocolate drinks were given as offerings to the gods.
All of this was amazing because chocolate in those days probably didn't taste very good. A complicated process turns cacao beans into chocolate, which includes drying, roasting, fermentation, and something called conching which is so elaborate we had to start making up words. Ancient Mesoamericans had only figured out the simplest bits of this, so even though their cacao drinks were fancy, with bits of chili and magnolia mixed in, they were nothing like we're used to.
Chocolate back then wasn't even at all sweet, most of the time. And we know, chocolate connoisseurs say bitter chocolate's best, but "bitter chocolate" still contains sugar, while the Mayas' had none. Plus, it would be centuries before anyone thought of mixing chocolate and peppermint to make the ultimate treat.
The Rich Glued Patches Right On Their Faces, To Cover All The Venereal Disease
Some people have always wanted to cover their face up because some people lack confidence. Today, of course, such people simply walk around with a paper bag over their head, but the paper bag was only mass produced starting in the 19th century, and also, some people only wanted to hide part of their face. Parts like birth marks that looked like omens of doom, or scars from smallpox. Or scars from that other pox, syphilis.
So starting in the 16th century, people used to cover such unattractive spots. Not using complex concealer but by plopping very noticeable patches on to their faces. These "beauty patches" were made of such materials as silk or velvet and were stuck on with tree gum. You didn't have to be rich to wear a beauty patch, but if you weren't, you couldn't afford velvet or silk. You'd have to settle for attaching mouse skin to your face.
The patch pictured above, like most, was black, but they weren't always so simple. Some patches were shaped like hearts or crescent moons. Women would paste them to their necks and the tops of their breasts as well as to their faces. They actually sound kind of cool, so long as you ignore what they were meant to cover (the patches majorly dropped in popularity once the smallpox vaccine was invented). If you wear lipstick solely to hide your cold sores, just don't say anything, and people will be cool with it.
Some even wore the patches as political statements in addition to for fashion. They'd wear one on the left side of their face to declare they were a Whig or on the right side to show they were Tory. Shit, we better stop talking about this immediately, or activists will definitely bring back this trend right now.
Aluminum Cutlery Was Worth More Than Gold
If you were lucky enough to dine at the court of Napoleon III, you'd probably eat with forks and knives made of silver or gold. But if you were an extremely valued guest, the court would instead present you with a special rarity: aluminum utensils. Because aluminum was a new and extremely valuable metal in the 19th century. France laid out aluminum bars along with its crown jewels. The Washington Monument has an aluminum capstone, solely to show off.
This is really surprising because aluminum isn't a rare element. There's more aluminum in the ground than copper or iron, more than any element at all other than silicon and oxygen. But aluminum comes naturally locked into its ore, and unlike iron, you can't free it using straightforward smelting. You need electrolysis, which in addition to removing any stray hairs that aren't covered by beauty patches is a useful process for separating ions so we can do what we want with them.
Even today, electrolysis costs a lot, which is why it's so much cheaper to melt down aluminum cans than to make new aluminum from ore. And in the early days of electricity, it was massively more expensive, which made aluminum more valuable than metals that were objectively more useful.
Stuff is valuable only when you can't get it easily. Let's go back to our old old friends the Spanish conquistadors. They grabbed gold from America, but they also kept stumbling across another metal, which they found as a raw element and had no idea how rare it was overall. They discarded it. Then people started coating this abundant metal in gold as a form of counterfeit, so the Spanish seized all they could find and sank it to the bottom of the sea. Today, we call this metal platinum.
Top image: Suniltg/Wiki Commons