4 Everyday Things That Caused Huge Panics When They Were New
Nuclear war. Global warming. ISIS. There are a lot of very serious things that people worry could destroy civilization. And, to be fair, a lot of times that concern is justified.
But then there are the other times. The times that society has had total freak-outs over things that now seem completely innocuous. It is almost like we constantly need something to be panicking about, proving that the next generation is going to be so much worse than ours is. Bring some of these up next time your grandma insists that selfies are a sign of the apocalypse.
The Postal Service
While the only people who use the post office today are eBay buyers who are too cheap to spring for actual shipping, there was a time when the whole idea of regularly delivered mail was considered revolutionary. At least it was until it became clear women were going to ruin everything.
This is basically how corresponding worked before countries started nationalizing the postal service: A woman would write a letter and then give it to one of her parents or her husband. If they were rich enough, a servant would then be dispatched to deliver the letter. Or if the recipient lived far away they would give it to a guy on a fast horse, and the person on the receiving end would pay for the letter. Why all the hassle? Because this system ensured that everyone knew who women were writing to at all times.
That all changed when author Anthony Trollope, while working for the newly formed postal service in the United Kingdom, had pillar boxes installed all over England. These, along with newfangled "stamps," meant that suddenly women could correspond with whoever they wanted. And everyone knew that the people they really wanted to exchange letters with were men of questionable character who were going to get them to do sex stuff before marriage.
Just stick your cock in there and be done with it.
According to people in the 1850s, allowing a woman to write a letter and then post it without anyone in her house ever knowing was going to throw the whole world into chaos. Women obviously could not be trusted to contact only respectable people, and once they started sending letters unchecked, who knows what kind of things they would get involved with (sex things). Even Trollope, the guy who pioneered the pillar box revolution, regretted it the second he realized it was going to give women a tiny bit of (probably sexy) freedom.
But this was nothing compared with the utter destruction of society that the post office was going to bring to America. In Britain, even if you managed to mail a letter in secret, the reply would be delivered to your house and you could be found out. But women in America picked up their letters at the post office, even renting boxes there just like we can today. Obviously, this meant they were all going to become prostitutes.
Women find sorting machines unbelievably erotic.
According to one pseudonymous writer at the time, having "clandestine correspondence with unprincipled men" was already affecting "a thousand schoolgirls a week" and opening their minds to "abnormal channels." He claimed madams had started hanging out in post offices specifically to lure these ready and willing stamp-sluts into a life of prostitution.
It sounds insane, but respectable ladies turning to whores all because they had control over their correspondence was such a common concern for men that when Congress was debating implementing home delivery like they had in England, one of the arguments in its favor was that women would no longer need to go to the post office (and, presumably, that their husbands or fathers could once again see who they were getting letters from) thus stopping all that civilization-ending, postal-related sex they must be having.
It seems bizarre to us today, but for most of human history people were really uncomfortable. Furniture was usually made by the family out of whatever wood they had available, and even if it was purchased, the only place you could get really comfy was in bed. So, of course, comfort became associated with sex, and as we saw in the last entry, sex is usually what people think is going to ruin the world.
The modern sofa was introduced to the West by Thomas Chippendale in 1748. And while his name might make you think of sexy, sweaty guys now, his designs don't exactly scream, "Let's do it!"
Someone is getting an ornate carving in the ass.
But Europeans had heard about these exotic sofas before and knew that the second people got a little bit comfortable outside of the bedroom they would never stop fucking each other ever, and that would be the end of civilization. They had all the proof they needed. After all, the Ancient Greeks and Romans had sofas, and look what happened to them. A common theme on Greek pots and cups was men reclining on couches, pulling prostitutes toward them for non-procreation purposes.
As if that wasn't enough, a popular book called The Sofa: A Moral Tale was published in French and English in 1742. The plot revolves around a man from the Middle East who is turned into a sofa and the seven couples who proceed to have sex on him. The message was clear to Westerners: Comfort leads to sex, and we are not having that here.
As scary as the possibility of the world ending in a giant orgy was, rich people really liked being comfortable, so sofas eventually caught on. But leaning back on a couch also meant that it was suddenly necessary to have a place to put your feet, and so the ottoman was also introduced to the West. Suddenly, women's shoes went from clunky things to more like ballet slippers with heels, the better to show off their shape and ankle when they propped them up. And just like that, feet became the new sexy body part of choice for men.
Eat your heart out, Quentin Tarantino.
Dancing has always been controversial. As you probably remember (stud), high school dances had plenty of chaperones around to make sure that kids didn't grind too close. There are even religions and cultures in which dancing is completely forbidden.
I know this is when you are expecting a joke about Footloose, but I've never seen that movie, so feel free to insert your own.
I'm turning it loose!
Because society is so unbelievably predictable, this dancing hate-on has always been for one reason and one reason only: sex. Since the beginning of time, people have seen vertical gyrations as the gateway drug to horizontal gyrations, and in many cases hoped that by prohibiting one they could delay the other as well. Unfortunately for them, people like gyrating at all angles, and dancing has always been popular. This never made it less scandalous. For a long time, professional dancers were little better than prostitutes. In many cases, like at the Paris Opera Ballet School, they were prostitutes.
Every generation has had its own controversial dance craze. Way back in the 1500s, it was the volta, a dance that involved lifting the woman up in a way that exposed knees.
I know, I can't take my eyes off it either.
In the 20th century, the Charleston, the jitterbug, even Elvis Presley's hip thrusts were too much for respectable people to bear. These days it is twerking.
But nothing comes close to the absolute moral panic caused in the 1800s by the introduction of the waltz. In 1816, the Times of London ran an article warning people about the dangers of this new way of getting jiggy:
The indecent foreign dance called the waltz was introduced ... at the English Court on Friday last. ... It is quite sufficient to cast one's eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs, and close compressure of the bodies ... to see that it is far indeed removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now ... we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.
If at this point you feel like you might be confusing that boring dance you once saw your grandparents do with literally anything less boring, here is a short clip of what a modern couple waltzing looks like:
And yet, at the time, that snooze-inducing dance drove people crazy with its sensuality. One commentator called it "choreographic rape." Even the poet Lord Byron found men and women dancing that close together to be a step too far, and this is coming from a guy who probably slept with his own sister.
Ever since someone in the Middle East invented it, people have been obsessed with coffee. England might be famous for its tea-drinking ways now, but before about 1750, they were all about the jitter juice. And even though it might not make you more creative, coffee houses have always attracted the fake-glasses-wearing, laptop-novel-writing, pretentiously intellectual crowd. They were just harder to identify in the 1600s because the iPhone hadn't been invented yet.
But King Charles II managed to figure it out anyway and decided to ban all coffee houses in the country in 1675. People were NOT happy.
It is almost like coffee is addictive or something.
So why were coffee houses such a problem? Shockingly for this list, it had nothing to do with sex. It was all about politics. Sexy, sexy politics.
The king's dad, Charles I, had been executed by Parliament only a few decades before, so the monarchy was still pretty shaky (and not from all the java they were drinking). Coffee houses were quickly becoming the place to talk about serious stuff like business and politics. Before, men had their discussions at the pub, but the rowdy atmosphere and ridiculous amounts of alcohol meant any talk of revolution never outlasted the subsequent hangover. But suddenly, important, smart men who wanted to talk about big things while (mostly) sober were going to coffee houses. This inevitably led to people there spreading rumors and criticisms about the monarchy, and the king was not having that. Talking about important stuff while not drunk was obviously going to lead to overthrowing the government and complete anarchy.
It wasn't just the king who was against these coffee houses, either. The year before he tried to ban them, a pamphlet went around London that ostensibly gave the feminine perspective on these dens of intellectual vice. According to the ladies, coffee made their previously manly men "Frenchified," impotent, and turned them into chatterboxes who just would. Not. Shut. Up.
You're enfeebled. That's right, they went there.
The combination of the consternation of their apparently sex-deprived wives and the king's concern meant that the men of England lost their coffee houses -- for two weeks. Due to huge public outcry, the king had to give in two days before the ban was set to take effect. While there might be more Starbucks now than there were in the 17th century, people back then were just as pissed about the idea of their wakey juice being taken away as you would be today.
To celebrate the ban being lifted, the people of London probably all went and had sex, which no doubt resulted in the fear that repealing coffee house bans was also going to end civilization as we know it.
For more from Kathy, check out 4 Things Now Considered Manly (Were Created for Ladies Only) and 5 Unfortunate Biases Hard Coded into Your DNA.
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