4 Stupid Moral Panics Caused By Everyday Objects
To badly paraphrase Douglas Adams: Anything invented before you are 35 is awesome, but anything that comes around after that is scary. It's the natural order of things. Our parents barely understand email, I have no idea why Snapchat is appealing, and one day you will be suspicious of your child's holodeck.
This has been going on forever. A few months ago I told you about four things that freaked people out when they were first introduced. But sex, women, and kitchen utensils have brought society to the brink of collapse more times than that.
There wasn't one general moral panic over the fork so much as a 600-year slow burn of derision. In the modern era, every country that the fork was introduced to was totally freaked out by it, before eventually accepting it. Then another country would learn about these weird mouth spears and, in turn, have their own national fork-hating party.
So why did people fear the fork so much? One theory is that, back before they had four prongs, they looked like the devil's pitchfork.
To be fair, it does look a lot deadlier than that knife.
The proof that forks were evil came early. In the 11th century, a princess came to Italy from the Middle East to marry an important guy. She brought with her a two-pronged golden fork, which she used to eat meat. When she died young of a mysterious disease (like a large number of non-fork users during that time) priests told everyone that it was her punishment from God for being so ridiculously extravagant.
That story was still being told in churches 200 years later. Eating with a fork makes God so sad that he kills you to make you stop.
Eventually, forks were introduced to France. Some upper-class people even started using them. But then King Henry III died and moralists wanted to make sure people stopped eating with these tools of the devil. A French author published a novel about the king's reign called The Island Of Hermaphrodites, and the biggest burn in the whole book was when he said that the king and his totally effeminate courtiers "never touch meat with their hands but with forks."
It was like the "Yo mama so fat" of the 1600s.
The insult worked. 100 years later, Louis XIV, possibly the most decadent monarch in history, wouldn't allow his children to eat with forks, for fear they'd grow big flowery vaginas or whatever.
This immoral cutlery took even longer to catch on in England. Men there just found them way too girly. Two of Shakespeare's contemporaries, John Fletcher and Ben Jonson, make fun of people for using forks in their plays. Thomas Coryate was the first Englishman we know of to use a fork all the time, and his acquaintances found it so weird that his nickname became "Furcifer" (a combination of fork and Lucifer, because his friends were idiots). Even up until 1897, men in the Royal Navy were still refusing to use forks because they were too ladylike. And they're right: Wiping your ass then shoving food in your mouth with the same hand is much more macho.
Not appropriate for these totally manly seamen.
Bicycles had to be reinvented three or four times before they really caught on. You know those old-timey photos you see of people riding around on ridiculous contraptions?
It's fun to laugh at silly-looking people who've been dead for over a century.
None of those were ever very popular. They were all unbelievably difficult to pedal and control. But then bicycles that look more like what we ride today came into being, and almost overnight riding around on two wheels became the coolest thing you could be doing. Millions of people bought them over the course of just a few years. So, obviously, a certain part of society completely freaked out.
Ministers preached that taking a nice bicycle ride on Sunday was ruining people's observation of the Sabbath. One writer called this development "alarming" and worse than saloons; another said that bikes were literally Satanic. Some asked their parishioners to sign the "Lord's Day Bicycle Pledge," promising not to use their bikes for any kind of fun on what was supposed to be a day of rest (apparently, totally boring rest).
Actual 1897 cartoon showing what was in store for those cycle sinners.
But the thing that really concerned men was the fact that women were using bicycles just as much as they were. While most moral prognosticators could just about deal with guys taking to this new, slightly risque hobby, women doing it was too much for some people.
Doctors in particular were very concerned. Even the ones who acknowledged that some exercise was good for ladies made it clear that there were strict limitations on what they could safely do on a bike. Obviously, they would need a man to go with them for protection. They should never travel too far or put any strain on their bodies, or else they might end up with "bicycle face," a tired, haggard look that made them much less attractive to potential husbands. Clearly, cycling while pregnant was out, and while menstruating, and just to be safe all women should have a gynecological exam before getting on a bike for the first time. One doctor was sure that thousands of women were actually allowing themselves to get to the verge of death due to cycling-related health issues, simply because women refused to talk to doctors in case their beloved bikes were taken away.
And just what were the ailments that women (but, curiously, not men) could get from riding a bicycle? Other than getting less hot, which was definitely the worst thing possible, symptoms included "nervous effects," goiters, chronic dysentery, and appendicitis.
And making men take care of babies, literally the most terrible thing that could happen, ever.
Then, of course, there was the sex stuff. Doctors hotly debated whether women were getting sexual pleasure out of pedaling and were concerned that riding a bike could lead women to insatiable sex drives, as well as lesbianism.
But the real underlying fear of moralists was that bicycles gave women freedom they had never had before. Suddenly, they could travel away from their homes, quickly and alone. Riding necessitated the introduction of bloomers, the first time in centuries women had worn something other than a dress with any regularity. Susan B. Anthony said that the bicycle had "done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." Meanwhile, your bike has been sitting there for months after you deluded yourself into thinking you would ride it more than once.
These days our biggest concern about books is which side to take in the Kindle vs. Dead Tree wars. Violent Internet arguments break out over which way of reading is superior. (The answer, by the way, is ALWAYS dead tree, but fortunately my book is available in both forms.)
But in the late 1700s, books were causing the prudes of the world to completely freak out. It started when literacy suddenly increased. Then the number of books published every year skyrocketed. They also became cheaper, meaning all those people who just learned how to read could actually afford it. And people's habits switched from owning a few books and reading them over and over to reading lots of books just once or twice, like we do today.
One of the reasons for these changes was that novels suddenly became hugely popular. And when something becomes popular, moralists inevitably say that it will ruin society.
Of course, this fear came down to the belief that women could not be trusted. First of all, any time women spent reading novels was time out of their busy schedule of learning to be a wife or servant. It also meant they were reading fewer "improving" books, usually written by men, telling them how they should act and (barely) think.
Popular novels, on the other hand, were full of love stories and sexy talk and heroines who did things that society frowned on. While men could be trusted to handle these stories, women were supposed to have less ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality. And novels could "make erotic suggestions which threatened chastity and good order." In other words, if they read about some fictional woman cheating on her husband in a book, their tiny lady brains would get confused, and they would go out and do it themselves.
The worst part was that novels also brought private reading to the masses. Before, people would sit together in one room and someone would read a book out loud while others sewed or played cards. But in the 1770s, readers started retreating to enjoy their sexy civilization-ruining books in private. And like most things people do in private, this made reading novels seem like the kind of dirty stuff conservative moralists would love to drown in holy water.
"Oh God, if you turn another page I will literally explode."
For our younger readers, here is a bit of a history lesson:
Phones used to be plugged into the wall. These days you might know a few people who still have these antiques and call them "landlines." Until I was 16, we just called them phones. They were your only option, and since that made texting impossible, if you wanted to communicate with the person on the other end it involved actually talking to them. We called these "telephone conversations."
Just imagine if you had to read all your text messages out loud.
But just like having prolonged conversations on the phone is hard to imagine today, the people in charge of popularizing the use of telephones when they first came out were also against it. YET AGAIN, women came along and ruined everything.
The original idea for phones was that they would be used almost exclusively by men for business and in emergencies. In the beginning, the plan was that telephones would be installed in offices, so the men in charge wouldn't have to walk all the way downstairs to yell at someone. Once they became more common in homes, it was still expected that one man would call another man, ask a quick and important question, then hang up.
Women had other ideas.
"Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you, thus defeating the entire point of this thing I invented."
Staying at home all day isn't the most fun thing in the world, and ladies soon realized that the phone was a great way to stay in touch with your family and social circle. Men did not like this. For one thing, women's conversation topics were considered to be much less important. On top of that, they gossiped. And when your wife is spending a few minutes of her day gossiping, she might say something not very nice about you. And, of course, there was the chance that women would use the phone to arrange sex dates. Obviously, this had to be stopped.
In 1909, the average telephone call was seven-and-a-half minutes long. This freaked guys out so much that they actually started making fun of women for it and calling them out on their "frivolity" in newspapers and books. They also complained that by clogging up the switchboards women and their ridiculously long conversations were literally putting other people in danger. And it wasn't just women; it was assumed that groups such as blacks, farmers, and immigrants would never really be able to "comprehend" how to properly use a telephone.
It wasn't until the 1920s, 45 years after it was invented, that phone companies finally started advertising telephones as a way of staying in contact with friends and family. I'll let you in on a secret, though: Since then, 99 percent of women's phone calls have been to say how much guys suck. Men were right to be paranoid.
All these women are laughing at your sad attempt at a beard.
For more details you probably missed, check out 6 People So Good At Sex They're Basically Magic and 5 Reasons 'Traditional Marriage' Would Shock Your Ancestors.