5 Obvious Treasures Our Ancestors Considered Worthless
Plenty of stuff around you used to be worth more centuries ago, before we invented the right industries or back when we shipped stuff using sea turtles. That’s why pineapples, aluminum or the color purple used to be exalted status symbols, but today, they’re all somewhere in your humble kitchen (next to a bunch of spices people once waged wars over).
Sometimes, however, the reverse is true. Centuries ago, people discarded a bunch of useful stuff as trash because they hadn’t realized just how valuable it was. And we’re not talking about, say, the first issue of Action Comics, stuff that’s now valuable because it’s old. We’re thinking about stuff like...
Platinum is the most valuable metal anyone can name offhand. True, there are a few other pricier metals, like rhodium and palladium, but if you know about those, you are either a scientist or a thief. Platinum’s value comes from how unreactive it is (like gold) and also how rare it is. Go back to the 18th century, however, and the first Spaniards who came upon platinum saw it as just a metal that looked kind of like silver but clearly wasn’t really silver.
Counterfeiters sold it, falsely claiming it was silver. Other fraudsters mixed it with gold. Their goal wasn’t to make some fancy alloy, like today’s white goal. Platinum’s heavier than gold, so they stuck some cheap useless platinum in a bar and saved on how much gold they needed to include. A counterfeit gold bar in those days might be 90-percent platinum.
Still, at least those fraudsters were using platinum for something. That’s better than the Spanish explorers who first saw the platinum in rivers and thought it might be some kind of “unripe gold.” They tossed it back into the river, hoping that, given time, it would ripen.
California Beach Property
At the start of the 20th century, a set of the Encyclopedia Americana sold for $126, which is around four grand in today’s money. Information cost a lot in those days. The books were such a major purchase that when you bought a set, Encyclopedia Americana threw in a plot of land in California, just as a marketing promotion.
This deal came with a couple catches. First, the plots were 2,000 square feet each. That might sound like a decent amount if you’re hunting for an apartment, but it wasn’t a practical amount of space if you wanted to build much of anything. You’d simply own the land for the sake of owning it, much like those plots of Scottish land that you buy so you can pretend you’re a lord. The other catch was the land was in the “eroded gullies” of Huntington Beach. The land was pretty much worthless, which was why the Americana had so casually bought 600 of the plots and given them away.
By the end of the century, however? Those plots were worth quite a bit. Maybe you still couldn’t live on your plot, but you could hold on to the land and stand in the way of the city’s plans to widen streets. By 1990, Huntington Beach was offering $10,000 to owners of the plots, who turned down these offers. The city argued that it was a good price, considering the owners couldn’t do anything with the plot (laws prohibited building even something small). The owners thought otherwise. Clearly the land was valuable. It had a view of the ocean.
Some people sold their plots for $150,000 in today’s money, while others held on. And some, in the meantime, had been making money off royalties without selling the land. Because in 1920, people discovered something buried under Huntington Beach: oil.
There’s a scene is Annie Get Your Gun, where Chief Sitting Bull laments how the U.S. government dumped some worthless land on him. “Nothing will grow,” he says. “Too much oil.” The joke here is the world is just a few years away from highly valuing that oil. Sitting Bull doesn’t know what he has, but he’s soon going to be an extremely wealthy man. (This joke works best if you don’t know how the historical Sitting Bull’s life really ended).
Oil only really became a commodity when the Industrial Revolution kicked off, of course. We find more interesting, however, how some bits of oil were underestimated even once furnaces and factories that ran on oil sprang up. Refiners wanted kerosene, and the refining process also left them with some lighter stuff, called gasoline or petrol. They dumped this because it was just a byproduct no one wanted.
Sure, they used some of this gasoline in the refinery itself, to keep that machinery running, but they couldn’t sell it. So they’d dump in right into rivers, hundreds of thousands of gallons of the stuff at a time. People complained that this was pollution, and they were right, but until automobiles became a thing, it never occurred to them that gasoline could also be really useful.
Oil refining also produced another light substance no one could use. It was methane, now known as natural gas. They piped it out and burned it right on the spot to get rid of it.
Many foods that are luxurious today were once considered last resorts for people who had no alternatives. Lobster was one of these, as was foie gras. Oysters, too, were a cheap food — not a garbage food, no, but far from a luxury.
People have eaten oysters for many centuries (one scene in Spartacus has men discuss their preferences for snails versus oysters, a conversation we’re certain is about cuisine and nothing else). In 19th-century America, however, we had New York harbor, which was overrun with the little rock creatures. The harbor quite likely contained half the world’s population of oysters, and so oysters became a working-class food. You’d buy them off street vendors just as you’d buy peanuts wrapped in newspaper.
People ate them in such large quantities that discarded oyster shells became a raw material that it was practical to use in construction. We’re not talking about gluing them on rooms, ornamentally. We mean grinding up the shells to use like sand in mortar. Except, the ground-up shells worked worse than plain sand, at least until we invented more modern methods, but people still used them because they had to do something with all those shells.
Maybe they should have done what they used to do all the time with trash: dump it right back in the harbor. Dropping oyster shells in the water is a great way of fostering oyster colonies into growing again. The population in New York Harbor has plummeted since the 19th century, but people are now deliberately dropping shells back in there today and bringing the oysters back. Not so we can catch and eat them — so the oysters will clean up the water.
The Grand Canyon
In 1857, army dude Joseph Christmas Ives led an expedition down the Colorado River, to find just where that sneaky thing headed when the map went blank. He traveled in a steamboat, which crashed. He switched to a different boat, and this too only took him so far. Then he continued on foot, and he came upon the Grand Canyon. The sight obviously impressed him. He called it astounding, gigantic and profound. Still, he took it on himself to assess whether there was any value in a site that merely looked really good, and his notes left no ambiguity on this matter. “The region is, of course, altogether valueless,” he argued.
“It can be approached only from the south,” he explained, “and after entering it, there is nothing to do but leave.” You’d think an explorer would see value in hiking, but you would be wrong. “Ours has been the first,” he wrote, “and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality.”
If you saw a historical movie about the Grand Canyon, and some character said these words, you’d groan and leave the theater. Sure, predictions can be hard. But no one would ever say that unless a screenwriter scripted them to, to label them both as comically wrong and also just as a general dick.
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