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5 Crazy Ways People Amused Themselves Before Television

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Before people had hundreds of channels, if they wanted to watch surgery or gawk at celebrity babies, they had to actually leave the house. Here are some of the ways people entertained themselves in the pre-TV era.

1. Attending Public Dissections

Thanks to advances in science and the relaxing of church and government laws, the dissection of human corpses came back into vogue in the 1300s. At first these dissections were performed in small rooms or houses for the benefit of a handful for medical students. Then, almost overnight, a bored and apparently pretty morbid public started clamoring to attend them as well.

Specially designed “anatomy theatres” were purpose-built in many of the major European cities; most could seat well over 1,000 people. Tickets were sold to the public and the prices often varied based on how “interesting” that particular corpse was.

The most expensive tickets sold in Hanover were 24 Groschen to see a woman who died while pregnant. The audiences were so excited about what they were watching that as early as 1502 a surgeon recommended having guards present at each dissection to “restrain the public as it enters.”

While most etchings from the period show only men at the viewings, women attended as well. In 1748, the crowds to see cadavers dissected at the theatre in Dresden, Germany were so large that they started having “ladies only” viewings, during which the women were invited to touch the corpses.

In many countries, these viewings only happened three or four times a year due to a lack of available bodies. In Bologna, Italy, dissections became fancy events, with women wearing their best clothes to the viewing, and balls or festivals followed in the evening.

Then in England in 1751, Parliament passed the Murder Act, allowing for all executed criminals to be publicly dissected. The increase in the number of public dissections did not diminish their popularity, and thousands of people continued to attend them each year until they were finally outlawed in the 1800s.

2. Watching People Inflate Balloons

Starting as early as the preparations for the first-ever hot air balloon flight in 1783, watching balloon ascents was incredibly popular, drawing some of the biggest crowds ever seen in Europe. Even the filling of the first balloon, which took numerous days, drew such huge crowds that they were in danger of interfering with the process, and the balloon had to be secretly moved the day before the flight. Benjamin Franklin, then the American Ambassador to the court of Louis XVI, was among the thousands of people who witnessed the first unmanned flight in Paris on August 27th. When the balloon came down in a village a few miles away, the locals were so terrified that they attacked it with pitchforks and rocks, destroying it.

The Montgolfier brothers sent the first living creatures (a goat, a duck, and a rooster) up in a balloon at Versailles in front of an enormous crowd that included the King and Marie Antoinette. The first ascents with humans drew upwards of 400,000 people, or “practically all the inhabitants of Paris,” with many of them paying large sums to be in special “VIP sections” close to the balloon.

The first hot air balloon flight in England was orchestrated by a man named Vincenzo Lunardi and drew a crowd of 200,000 people, including the Prince of Wales. One woman in the crowd was so astonished at the sight of the balloon that she supposedly died of fright and Lunardi was tried for her murder; he was eventually acquitted. George Washington was part of the crowd that viewed the first ballooning attempt in America in 1793.

Despite the overwhelming public interest in ballooning, it, like everything always will, had some detractors. Among their biggest fears were that women’s “honor and virtue would be in continual peril if access could be got by balloons at all hours to [their bedroom windows.]”

3. Riding Escalators

Image credit: Brooklyn Museum

The first escalators completely blew people’s minds. Nothing remotely similar had ever been seen before. Jesse W. Reno patented his idea for an “Endless Conveyor or Elevator” (later called the "inclined elevator") in 1892, and by 1896 the first working example had been installed…as a ride at the popular Coney Island amusement park.

It differed from modern elevators in that you sat on slats rather than stood on stairs, but the general principle was the same. The belt moved the riders up about two stories at a 25 degree incline. It was only displayed at the park for two weeks, but in that short time an astonishing 75,000 people rode it.

The same prototype was moved to the Brooklyn Bridge for a month-long trial period. It remained popular there, and in 1900 was shipped to Europe and displayed at the Paris Exposition Universelle, where it won first prize. Shortly thereafter, the Otis Company bought Reno’s patent and started producing escalators for businesses.

The novelty and excitement of riding an escalator was such that in 1897, the first department store in New York City to install one, Frederick Loeser, actually included it in its advertisements, promising customers that they could reach the second floor in a mere 26 seconds!

But while these escalators were very popular, they all had something in common: They only went up. It took the public and businesses almost three decades to accept that the far more frightening down escalators were safe to use.

4. Taking Pictures of Themselves

While there were different versions of photo booths starting in the late 1800s, they didn’t produce great pictures. The beginning of the modern photo booth is usually traced to one man, a Russian immigrant named Anatolo Josepho. He trained as a photographer in Europe and after a spell in Hollywood learning the mechanics of cameras, he moved to New York City. There he managed to borrow the astonishing sum of $11,000 to make his first photo booth. It produced clear pictures and could run completely on its own. He opened a studio on Broadway in 1925, put the photo booth inside, and sat back to watch the money roll in.

For 25 cents, customers were led to the box by a “white-gloved attendant,” who would then direct them to “look to the right, look to the left, look at the camera.” Then after about ten minutes, the booth spit out eight photos and the customers went away happy. They probably told all their friends to check it out — and check it out they did. Soon, the line to the studio was stretching around the block, and up to 7,500 people a day used the machine. According to the April 1927 issue of TIME, more than 280,000 people visited the photo booth in the first six months alone, including the Governor of New York and at least one Senator.

Within a year, Josepho was astonishingly wealthy and dating a famous silent film actress. Then a consortium of investors offered to buy his patent for $1 million. He accepted the deal, and immediately put half of that money into a trust for various charities. He invested the other half in several inventions.

Imitation photo booth studios popped up around the US and Europe, and even the Great Depression didn’t diminish people’s desire to look at pictures of themselves. One shop owner in NYC was so busy he managed to keep his entire extended family employed for the entire Depression.

5. Staring at Quintuplets

At the time of the Dionne Quintuplets' birth in 1934, in Ontario, Canada, no one even knew conceiving five babies at once was possible. Not only was it possible, but babies Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie thrived despite being delivered two months premature. Their existence was so astonishing that newspapers paid huge sums for photos of them. A year later their father signed a lucrative contract to display the girls at the 1935 Chicago World’s Fair.

The Canadian government stepped in, claiming that their parents were obviously not fit to raise the quints if they were willing to exploit them like that. The Canadian parliament quickly passed a bill making the girls wards of the state. The quints were placed in a hospital/nursery directly across the street from their parents, where the Canadian and Ontario government proceeded to exploit the girls themselves, to an astonishing degree.

© Bettmann/CORBIS

In less than a decade, 3 million people, sometimes upwards of 3,000 a day, passed through “Quintland,” as the compound the girls were held in became known. This was at a time when the entire population of Canada was only around 11 million. Visitors viewed the quints playing, eating, and sleeping through special one-way windows. The quints were by far the most popular tourist attraction in Canada, drawing more visitors than Niagara Falls. It is estimated that the girls’ popularity directly contributed half a billion dollars to the Ontario economy in just nine years. Celebrities flocked to see them as well, including Amelia Earhart, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Bette Davis, James Cagney, Mae West, and the future Queen Elizabeth II.

And in case any particularly sharp readers are saying to themselves, “Surely televisions have been commercially available since the late 1920s,” don’t worry. Canada didn’t start broadcasts until 1952, nine years after Quintland closed. By that time, the girls had been returned to their family.

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Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
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Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 118th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

ON TRUST

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

ON DECIDING WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."

ON TRAVEL

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."

Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTELLIGENCE AND HAPPINESS

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

ON TRUTH

"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."

ON THE DOWNSIDE OF PEOPLE

"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."

ON SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

ON TAKING ACTION

"Never mistake motion for action."

ON GETTING WORDS OUT

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."

Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE BENEFITS OF SLEEP

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"

ON FINDING STRENGTH 

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

ON THE TRUE NATURE OF WICKEDNESS

"All things truly wicked start from innocence."

ON WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

ON THE DEFINITION OF COURAGE

"Courage is grace under pressure."

ON THE PAINFULNESS OF BEING FUNNY

"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."

By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON KEEPING PROMISES

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

ON GOOD VS. EVIL

"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

ON REACHING FOR THE UNATTAINABLE

"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

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35 Things You Might Not Know About Mister Rogers
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In this episode of our YouTube series, John Green brings you a whole pile of things you should know about everybody's favorite neighbor. Here's a transcript, courtesy of Nerdfighteria:

Hi, I'm John Green, welcome to my neighborhood. This is mental_floss, and today we're going to talk about Mr. Rogers, with whom I have a lot in common. By the way, thanks to copyright laws, that's the only picture of Mr. Rogers we can afford, so you'll be seeing a lot of it today. But yes, Fred Rogers and I have many similarities:

1. We both considered becoming ministers (he actually did).

2. Both happily married to women named Sara(h).

And we both make stuff for young people... although I don't think that his work has been banned from several dozen high schools in Tennessee.

[intro music]

3. Mr. Rogers was an Ivy League dropout. He completed his freshman year at Dartmouth, and then transferred to Rollins College so he could get a degree in music.

4. And he was an excellent piano player; not only did he graduate from Rollins "Magna cum laude," but he wrote all of the songs on the show, as well as more than 200 other songs, and several kids' operas including one called "All in the Laundry."

5. Mr. Rogers decided to get into television, because when he saw it for the first time he, "hated it so." When he turned on a set, all he saw was angry people throwing pies in each others' faces, and he vowed to use the medium to make the world a better place.

6. Over the years, he talked to kids about their feelings, covering topics as varied as why kids shouldn't be afraid of haircuts, or the bathroom drain (because you won't fit), to bigger issues like divorce and war.

7. In the opening sequence of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, the stoplight is always on yellow. That's a reminder to kids and parents to slow down a little.

8. Also, Mr. Rogers wasn't afraid of dead air time, unlike me: Once he invited a marine biologist and explorer onto his program to put a microphone into his fish tank, because he wanted to show the kids at home that fish make sounds when they eat. However, while taping the segment, the fish weren't hungry so the marine biologist started trying to egg the fish on, saying "C'mon," "It's Chowtime," "Dinnerbell." But Mr. Rogers just waited quietly. The crew thought he'd want to re-tape it, but Mr. Rogers just kept it... to show kids the importance of being patient.

9. Fred Rogers was a perfectionist, and so he disliked ad-libbing. He felt that he owed it to children to make sure that every word on his show was thought out. But here at mental_floss, we love ad libbing because it's much less work.

10. In a Yale psychology study, when Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood went "head to head," kids who watched Mr. Rogers not only remembered more of the story lines, but their, "Tolerance of delay," a fancy term for their ability to wait for promised treats or adult attention, was considerably higher.

11. Mr. Rogers was also beloved by Koko the Gorilla, you know Koko the Stanford educated Gorilla who can speak about 1000 words in American Sign Language; she watched The Neighborhood, and when Mr. Rogers made a trip to meet her, she not only embraced him but she did what she'd always see him do on screen: She proceeded to take his shoes off.

12. Those shoes were store bought, by the way, but every one of the cardigans Mr. Rogers wore on his show was knit by his mother.

13. Today one of them resides in the Smithsonian - a red one. Mr. Rogers chose to donate that sweater, because the cameras at his studio didn't pick up the color very well.

14. Mr. Rogers could start to feel anxious and overwhelmed, and when he did, he liked to play the chords to the show's theme song on the piano on set in order to calm himself.

15. The other way you could tell he was exasperated? If he said the word, "mercy." Mostly, he said it when he got to his desk in the morning, and the mountains of fan mail were a little bit too tall. But, "mercy" was about the strongest word in his vocabulary.

16. And yes, Mr. Rogers responded to every single piece of fan mail. He had the same routine every morning: wake up at 5:00AM. Pray for a few hours for all of his friends and family, study, write, make calls, reach out to every single fan who took the time to write him, go for a morning swim, get on a scale, then start the day. My morning routine is a bit less ambitious than that; Mr. Rogers, I thought you were supposed to make me feel good about myself! You just made me feel terrible!

17. But speaking of that daily weigh-in, Mr. Rogers watched his weight very closely. And he'd like to weigh exactly 143 lbs (65 kg). By the way, he didn't drink, smoke, or eat the flesh of any animal. NATCH.

18. Why did Mr. Rogers like the number 1-4-3 so much? Because it takes 1 letter to say "I", 4 letters to say "love," and 3 letters to say, "you" (Jean --Luc Picard).

19. Now it starts to get a little weird. So, journalists had a tough time covering Mr. Rogers because he'd often, like befriend them, ask them tons of questions, take pictures of them, compile an album for them at the end of their time together, and then call them afterwards to check in on them and hear about their families. He genuinely loved hearing the life stories of other people.

20. And it wasn't just reporters. Like once, on a fancy trip up to a PBS executive's house, he heard the limo driver was gonna have to wait outside for two hours, so Mr. Rogers insisted that the driver come in and join them. And then, on the way back, Rogers sat up front, and when he learned that they were passing the driver's house on the way, he asked if they could stop in to meet the family. And according to the driver, it was one of the best nights of his life. The house lit up when Rogers arrived, and he played jazz piano and bantered with them late into the night.

21. Okay, so thieves, Smithsonian curators, reporters, limo drivers, kids, all these people loved Mr. Rogers, but someone has to hate him, right? Well, LSU professor Don Chance certainly doesn't love his legacy: He believes that Mr. Rogers created a, "culture of excessive doting" which resulted in generations of lazy, entitled college students... and that makes sense, because generally the deterioration of culture can be traced back to a single public television program.

22. Other curious theories about Mr. Rogers that are all over the Internet: That he served in the army and was a sniper in Vietnam;

23. That he served in the army and was a sniper in Korea;

24. That he only wore sweaters to cover up the tattoos on his arms. These are all untrue. He was never in the army; he never shot anyone; he had no tattoos.

25. One other rumor we'd like to quash? That he used to chase kids off his porch on Halloween. That's crazy! In fact, his house was known for being one of those generous homes that give out full-size candy bars... because of course it was!

26. In fact, for all the myths that people want to create about him, Mr. Rogers seems to have been almost exactly the same person "off screen," as he was, "onscreen." As an ordained Presbyterian minister and a man of tremendous faith, Mr. Rogers preached tolerance first. He never engaged in the culture wars; all he would ever say is, "God loves you just the way you are."

27. He was also kind of a superhero, like when the government wanted to cut public television funds in 1969, the then relatively unknown Mr. Rogers went to Washington and almost like straight out of a Capra film, his testimony on how TV had the potential to give kids hope and create more productive citizens was so passionate and convincing, that even the most gruff politicians were charmed... and instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV jumped from $9M to $22M.

28. Years later, Mr. Rogers also swayed the Supreme Court to allow VCR's to record TV shows from home. It was a cantankerous debate at the time, but his argument was that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Plus, it allowed him to watch Captain Stubing on The Love Boat anytime he wanted, without having to stay up till 8:30PM.

29. He was also heavily parodied, but most of the people who made fun of him, loved him. Like Johnny Carson hoped his send up of The Neighborhood would make Mr. Rogers more famous.

30. And the first time Eddie Murphy met Mr. Rogers, he couldn't stop himself from giving the guy a big hug.

All right, we're running out of time, so let's speed this up.

31. Mr. Rogers was color-blind. I mean that figuratively, like his parents took in African-American foster children, and he loved people of all backgrounds equally, but also literally.

32. Michael Keaton got his start on the show: He was a puppeteer and worked the trolley.

33. Mr. Rogers once made a guest appearance on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman as a pastor's mentor.

34. And many of the characters on his show took their names from his family. Like, McFeely was his grandfather's name, Queen Sara is named for his wife.

35. And lastly, we return to the Salon so I can tell you probably my favorite story about Mr. Rogers: that he could make a whole New York City subway car full of strangers sing. He was rushing to a meeting and there were no cabs available so Mr. Rogers jumped on the subway. The car was full of people, Rogers assumed that he wouldn't be noticed, but he quickly was, of course, and then people burst into song, chanting, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood."

Thanks for watching mental_floss, which is made with the help of all of these lovely people and remember that you make every day special just by being you.

See Also...

20 Gentle Quotes from Mister Rogers
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Mister Rogers on the Set of The Incredible Hulk
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11 Scenes from the Mister Rogers Christmas Special

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