15 Delightfully Odd Historical Fads

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by Therese Oneill

GEICO’s delightful customer service would have been wildly popular in any era. Luckily these weird fads are all stuck in the past.

1. Six-Day Bike Races

Before there was stock car racing, there were six-day bicycle races. Teams—often consisting of just two people—would compete for the most laps around an indoor wooden track in a six-day period, cycling for 24 hours a day. Competitors would live on the inside of the track in three-sided cubicles, with all but their bathroom trips visible to spectators. The popularity of the sport, which began around the turn of the century, started to die out in America around the time of World War II, but is still much enjoyed in Europe.

2. Tulips

Tulips were introduced to Holland on 1593. Holland is cold, and not a lot of colorful plants thrived there, but the tulip did. It became very popular, and demand became extremely high. Traders begin buying up huge quantities of tulip bulbs, intending to ship them to foreigners. This made tulips even rarer. The value of a tulip bulb, and the height of the frenzy, was 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. People traded their whole estates for the bulbs. But as soon as one or two merchants started selling their stock, it dominoed—one of the earliest examples of an economic bubble bursting—and by 1637, a tulip bulb was worth about as much as a beet. A beet that you had traded your house for. 

3. Relics

In the 5th and 6th centuries, you could do no better than to get your hands on a finger bone of a saint. Every proper church had one, and most people of any wealth sought a personal one. Commoners were happy to pay just for a “contact relic,” a piece of clay that had supposedly touched a real relic. These objects would heal you, soothe you, protect you, and ensure your life to be showered in blessings.

4. Hair Jewelry

For the greater part of the 19th century, there were no photographs to remember your loved one by. This was the heyday of jewelry, usually pendants, whose designs were made from human hair. If you lost a loved one, a skilled designer could stitch your departed’s hair into a number of beautiful designs. Simpler designs could be made by anyone. It was a way to literally keep a piece of them with you.

5. Ice

In the mid-19th century, businesses all over the Northeast United States and Norway began carving ice out of frozen lakes and transporting it all over the world. At first it was just for the private consumption of the wealthy, so they could concoct famous drinks like the mint julep. But the demand, paired with advances in travel and insulation techniques, brought many more suppliers, which allowed ice to be affordable. Americans loved their ice, and by the dawn of the 20th century most had their own icebox, where they could accept regular deliveries from the ice man. 

6. Radium

If you lived in the early 20th century and wanted a healthy glow, it was easy to find numerous products containing the newly discovered miracle of health—radium! You could get radium in everything from cosmetics to wool for baby clothes. No one knew exactly how radium improved your life, and no one really cared. Good thing the poisonous element was so expensive that manufacturers skimped on adding it to their products! 

7. Chinese Porcelains and Teas

In the 1700s, China and England’s East India Trading Company finally found a comfortable arrangement with which to trade with each other. China got cotton and wool, Britain got all the magic and mysteries of the East. Chinese porcelain was unlike any pottery the West had ever seen, so thin and bright and beautiful. It took years for Europeans to figure out how to replicate “china” cups and dinnerware. To complete their sets, they put imported Chinese tea in those delicate cups, a fad that has never really ended in England. 

8. Ornamental Hermits

After Henry VIII abolished Catholicism in England, the English people realized they missed monks and religious hermits. By the 18th century, religious and political fires had finally burned out enough that the English could afford to be whimsical and romantic about spiritual things. Hermits, wise men who live in complete solitude so they can have pure minds and souls, came back into fashion—sort of. Wealthy, eccentric men would employ wizened old guys to live in a fake hermitage on their estate, and make appearances to entertain guests. Not a bad retirement plan.

9. Mummies

One of history’s strangest fads came in the 19th century, after the first tombs of the Pharaohs were discovered. Egypt became all the rage among the upper classes, and people began holding disintegration parties—hosts would invite friends to spend a weekend watching a mummy get unwrapped and then disintegrate as it came into contact with the air.

10. Staged Train Crashes

There were a surprising number of old steam locomotives left over as electric and diesel trains came on the scene. Promoters and entertainers of the early 20th century came up with a great use for them: Labeling the trains—such as “The Great Depression vs. The National Recovery Administration!”—and purposefully crashing them into one another. Engineers would lock the throttles in place and jump out of the engines, which would progress on a specially built track until they collided, at between 45 and 90 mph. 

11. Piked Shoes

Pointy jester shoes were what all the fancy gentleman wore in the 1400s. Even though—as archeologists would later discover—those shoes deformed their feet, caused pain, and made them trip, they were still excellent status symbols among courtly men. The shoes irritated King Henry IV, and he had them banned. He proclaimed the “beak” of a shoe was not to exceed two inches, and any cobbler who made such a ridiculous shoe would be fined 30 shillings. 

12. Tapeworm Diets

Some historians think the turn of the century Tapeworm Diet fad was a myth, but others believe it really was fashionable to eat tapeworm eggs to lose weight. Makes cutting carbs sound easy by comparison!

13. Sanitariums

Though we usually associate the word “sanitarium” with places people who suffered from tuberculosis would go, it developed a new meaning at the turn of the 20th century. Sanitariums became the peculiar ancestor of modern day health spas, where wealthy people who considered themselves sick of body or spirit could come to recuperate. This usually included a great deal of bathing, enemas, and mild electric shocks. The Sanitarium fad decreased as the Great Depression hit, and fell away altogether after WWII (and the discovery of antibiotics). 

14. Tear Catchers

Tear catchers were a fashionable way to mourn in the Victorian era. You would cry your tears into a tiny bottle until it was full. A special stopper allowed for slow evaporation of the tears, and when it was empty, your mourning was over.

15. Utopian Communities

Throughout the 19th century, groups of people believed that if they just could get away from all the sin and confusion in the world, they could form the perfect society, a utopia on earth. None of these communities worked, but at least some left their mark, like the Oneida colony which created fine cutlery, and the Shakers, who made huge advances in furniture design.

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November 15, 2013 - 3:15pm
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