15 Delightfully Odd Historical Fads


by Therese Oneill

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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.