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.

This Course Will Teach You How to Play Guitar Like a Pro for $29

BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

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11 Fascinating Facts About Tamagotchi

Tamagotchi is the toy that launched a thousand digital pet competitors.
Tamagotchi is the toy that launched a thousand digital pet competitors.
Chesnot/Getty Images News

They blooped and beeped and ate, played, and pooped, and, for ‘90s kids, the egg-shaped Tamagotchi toys were magic. They taught the responsibility of tending to a “pet,” even though their shrill sounds were annoying to parents and teachers and school administrators. Nearly-real funerals were held for expired Tamagotchi, and they’ve even been immortalized in a museum (of sorts). Here are 11 things you should know about the keychain toy that was once stashed in every kid’s backpack.

1. The idea for the Tamagotchi came from a female office worker at Bandai.

Aki Maita was a 30-year-old “office lady” at the Japanese toy company Bandai when inspiration struck. She wanted to create a pet for kids—one that wouldn't bark or meow, make a mess in the house, or lead to large vet bills, according to Culture Trip. Maita took her idea to Akihiro Yokoi, a toy designer at another company, and the duo came up with a name and backstory for their toy: Tamagotchis were aliens, and their egg served as protection from the Earth’s atmosphere. They gave prototype Tamagotchis to high school girls in Shibuya, and tweaked and honed the design of the toy based on their feedback.

2. The name Tamagotchi is a blend of two Japanese words.

The name Tamagotchi is a mashup between the Japanese words tamago and tomodachi, or egg and friend, according to Culture Trip. (Other sources have the name meaning "cute little egg" or "loveable egg.")

3. Tamagotchis were released in Japan in 1996.

A picture of a tamagotchi toy.
Tamagotchis came from a faraway planet called "Planet Tamagotchi."
Museum Rotterdam, Wikimedia Commons//CC BY-SA 3.0

Bandai released the Tamagotchi in Japan in November 1996. The tiny plastic keychain egg was equipped with a monochrome LCD screen that contained a “digital pet,” which hatched from an egg and grew quickly from there—one day for a Tamagotchi was equivalent to one year for a human. Their owners used three buttons to feed, discipline, play with, give medicine to, and clean up after their digital pet. It would make its demands known at all hours of the day through bloops and bleeps, and owners would have to feed it or bathe it or entertain it.

Owners that successfully raised their Tamagotchi to adulthood would get one of seven characters, depending on how they'd raised it; owners that were less attentive faced a sadder scenario. “Leave one unattended for a few hours and you'll return to find that it has pooped on the floor or, worse, died,” Wired wrote. The digital pets would eventually die of old age at around the 28-day mark, and owners could start fresh with a new Tamagotchi.

4. Tamagotchis were an immediate hit.

The toys were a huge success—4 million units were reportedly sold in Japan during their first four months on shelves. By 1997, Tamagotchis had made their way to the United States. They sold for $17.99, or around $29 in today's dollars. One (adult) reviewer noted that while he was "drawn in by [the Tamagotchi's] cleverness," after several days with the toy, "the thrill faded quickly. I'm betting the Tamagotchi will be the Pet Rock of the 1990s—overwhelmingly popular for a few months, and then abandoned in the fickle rush to some even cuter toy."

The toy was, in fact, overwhelmingly popular: By June 1997, 10 million of the toys had been shipped around the world. And according to a 2017 NME article, a whopping 82 million Tamagotchi had been sold since their release into the market in 1997.

5. Aki Maita and Akihiro Yokoi won an award for inventing the Tamagotchi.

In 1997, the duo won an Ig Nobel Prize in economics, a satiric prize that’s nonetheless presented by Nobel laureates at Harvard, for "diverting millions of person-hours of work into the husbandry of virtual pets" by creating the Tamagotchi.

6. Tamagotchis weren't popular with teachers.

Some who grew up with Tamagotchi remember sneaking the toys into school in their book bags. The toys were eventually banned in some schools because they were too distracting and, in some cases, upsetting for students. In a 1997 Baltimore Sun article titled “The Tamagotchi Generation,” Andrew Ratner wrote that the principal at his son’s elementary school sent out a memo forbidding the toys “because some pupils got so despondent after their Tamagotchis died that they needed consoling, even care from the school nurse.”

7. One pet cemetery served as a burial ground for expired Tamagotchi.

Terry Squires set aside a small portion of his pet cemetery in southern England for dead Tamagotchi. He told CNN in 1998 that he had performed burials for Tamagotchi owners from Germany, Switzerland, France, the United States, and Canada, all of whom ostensibly shipped their dead by postal mail. CNN noted that "After the Tamagotchis are placed in their coffins, they are buried as mourners look on, their final resting places topped with flowers."

8. There were many copycat Tamagotchi.

The success of the Tamagotchi resulted in both spin-offs and copycat toys, leading PC Mag to dub the late ’90s “The Golden Age of Virtual Pets.” There was the Digimon, a Tamagotchi spin-off by Bandai that featured monsters and was marketed to boys. (There were also Tamagotchi video games.) And in 1997, Tiger Electronics launched Giga Pets, which featured real animals (and, later, dinosaurs and fictional pets from TV shows). According to PC Mag, Giga Pets were very popular in the United States but “never held the same mystique as the original Tamagotchi units.” Toymaker Playmates's Nano Pets were also a huge success, though PC Mag noted they were “some of the least satisfying to take care of."

9. Rare Tamagotchis can be worth a lot of money.

According to Business Insider, most vintage Tamagotchis won't fetch big bucks on the secondary market. (On eBay, most are priced at around $50.) The exception are rare editions like “Yasashii Blue” and “Tamagotchi Ocean,” which go for $300 to $450 on eBay. As Complex notes, "There were over 40 versions (lines) of Tamagotchi released, and each line featured a variety of colors and variations ... yours would have to be one of the rarest models to be worth the effort of resale."

10. A new generation of Tamagotchis were released in 2017 for the toy's 20th anniversary.

The 2017 re-release of the Tamagotchi in its packaging.
Bandai came to the aid of nostalgic '90s kids when it re-released a version of the original Tamagotchis for the toy's 20th anniversary.
Chesnot/Getty Images

In November 2017, Bandai released a 20th anniversary Tamagotchi that, according to a press release [PDF], was "a first-of-its-kind-anywhere exact replica of the original Tamagotchi handheld digital pet launched ... in 1996." However, as The Verge reported, the toys weren't an exact replica: "They're about half the size, the LCD display is square rather than rectangle, and those helpful icons on the top and bottom of the screen seem to be gone now." In 2019, new Tamagotchis were released; they were larger than the originals, featured full-color displays, and retailed for $60.

11. The original Tamagotchi’s sound has been immortalized in a virtual museum.

The Museum of Endangered Sounds is a website that seeks to immortalize the digital sounds that become extinct as we hurtle through the evolution of technology. “The crackle of a dial-up modem. The metallic clack of a 3.5-inch floppy slotting into a Macintosh disk drive. The squeal of the newborn Tamagotchi. They are vintage sounds that no oldies station is ever going to touch,” The Washington Post wrote in a 2012 profile of the museum. So, yes, the sound of that little Tamagotchi is forever preserved, should it someday, very sadly, cease to exist completely.