10 Awesomely Odd American Curiosity Shops You Should Visit

Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy

Some consumers prefer to shop at big box stories, while others like to peruse smaller boutique stores. And then there are the people who are looking for something a little more ... unusual. You might find these people in a curiosity shop, where they eagerly admire torturous-looking Victorian medical devices, “human ivory” (a.k.a. fingernail) jewelry, and taxidermy mounts of two-headed calves.

Needless to say, every day at an oddities shop is pretty much Halloween. But what better time to poke around their shelves and displays than this time of year, when all of us—not just the collectors and connoisseurs—are in the mood for something a little bit strange and even possibly creepy and freaky? We'd suggest starting with these purveyors of weird wares from around the United States.

1. Bazaar // Baltimore, Maryland

A marker drawing of a clown waving and saying "Hi I'm Pogo" drawn by John Wayne Gacy
Serial killer John Wayne Gacy used marker to draw this clown portrait, which hangs at Bazaar in Baltimore, Maryland.
Courtesy of Greg Hatem

Greg Hatem and Brian Henry were two twentysomethings working jobs they didn’t like—Hatem was waiting tables and Henry was working in a photo lab—when they decided to take the plunge and open Bazaar (clearly a play on the word bizarre). “We both have strange collections, and there was a [retail] spot available in one of our favorite neighborhoods and we decided to go for it,” Hatem tells Mental Floss. “It started as stuff we found extremely weird—we had some rare albino specimens, and we had this one piece that was, like, framed dog hair that had won some dog show in, like, 1974.” The Ouija board was named in Baltimore, so Hatem and Henry naturally sell a lot of those. The store also boasts a signature candle collection, which includes such scents as Abandoned Hospital, Overgrown Cemetery, Plague Doctor, and Séance. “Overgrown Cemetery has a dirty, earthy smell, and Séance has spiritual herbs,” Hatem says. “Abandoned Hospital smells like a decaying building.” Well, naturally!

The Ouija boards and the candles are along the lines of what’s to be expected; Bazaar doesn’t disappoint, however, when it comes to the unexpected. “I’d say one of the creepier things we have in the shop is a sculpture made out of intestines,” Hatem says. “The face is sort of like a horse face and it has a female bust. We believe it’s pig intestines.” (In a follow-up email, Hatem explained that the sculpture had been found in an abandoned farmhouse during a clean-out by new owners, and that he knows virtually nothing about it beyond that.) Bazaar also has some original artwork by serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was a prolific creator of drawings and paintings. “The Gacy piece is actually done in marker, and it depicts his alter ego, Pogo the Clown,” Hatem wrote. “I don't know if he titled most of his pieces, but it would be commonly referred to among collectors as a ‘Pogo.’ The Pogo pieces that were done with paint are among his most prized works, but the marker one is still pretty creepy!”

2. Ballyhoo Curiosity Shop // Seattle, Washington

A "Dental phantom"—a metal head equipped with teeth.
Courtesy Ryan Robbins

“I’ve sold more human bones than I know what to do with,” Ballyhoo Curiosity Shop owner Ryan Robbins tells Mental Floss, but Homo sapiens parts aren't the only unusual specimens you'll find here. The store also has a dissected pigeon encased in resin—“You can see all the internal organs”—and framed insects and taxidermy bats. Where does Robbins find all this stuff? “It started off with me traveling around, and now that we have a reputation, people will bring us stuff,” Robbins says. “Or we go to estate sales.” An owner of a tattoo shop that closed sold him a mummified cat. And Robbins also has some "dental phantoms" in the store. “They’re weird,” he said. “It’s a metal armature of a human head that looks like the Terminator ... It’s basically a metal skeleton head. Dentists practice on them and they’re very unusual and creepy.”

3. The Weeping Glass // Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

A taxidermied two headed calf next to a vintage lamp.
Courtesy Kelly Braden

Though The Weeping Glass is bursting with odd and curious tchotchkes, probably one of the coolest things about this Pittsburgh establishment is its in-store events, which feature evenings of cocktails and performance artists who tell tales of murder, and an Edgar Allan Poe impersonator who does Poe readings (can you hear the heart beating under the floorboards?). “We definitely see a pickup around the Halloween season, but we have a lot of traffic year-round,” co-owner Kelly Braden says. “Halloween is every day for us.” Currently, there’s a full sheep skeleton in the shop, as well as a warthog skull and an ostrich skull. A cat skeleton Braden calls Ramona “sleeps” on one of the chairs. And it wouldn’t be an oddities shop without a taxidermy two-headed cow (seriously, they all seem to have one). “His name is Dippy, and he’s from a private collector we deal with,” Braden explains.

4. Obscura Antiques & Oddities // New York, New York

The term creepy is highly subjective, but there are certain antiques that just have an energy to them, or a look to them, that give some people inexplicable heebie-jeebies, according to Obscura Antiques & Oddities co-owner Mike Zohn. “Years ago, we had a really amazing shrunken head that had a [haunted] look to it,” he says. “We had a [human] brain in a jar many years ago. And Ouija boards—people get really freaked out by Ouijas. I’ve seen people turn around and leave. I’ve had people come in and say, ‘Oh my god, you should burn that.’” Obscura has a collection of Victorian death photos, as well as other memorial and mourning items. And anything related to the mortuary or medical professions is always a big hit, according to Zohn: “We have mortuary supplies, embalming tools. A medical amputation kit. Terrible and intrusive medical items.”

Obscura co-owner Evan Michelson—who, along with Zohn, starred on the Science Channel series Oddities—is particularly well-versed in Victorian jewelry, and the shop has plenty of items made from human hair. “We still have a bunch of human hair stuff—1850s hair items. Human hair wreaths. Most of them are mid- to late 19th-century,” Zohn says, but notes that jewelry made of hair is notoriously uncomfortable to wear close to the skin: “It can actually be kind of abrasive.” And the hair wreaths? “People displayed them in their homes,” he says. “Some of them are memorials, some of them are almost like a family tree—gray hair from grandma, red hair from aunt so-and-so—not necessarily because someone died.”

5. Las Vegas Oddities // Las Vegas, Nevada

“I had a guy walk in and pull a skull out of a kid’s backpack once. That skull was not fresh, so I didn’t call the cops,” says Vanessa VanAlstyne, owner of Las Vegas Oddities. “I did have a guy once try to sell me a half gallon of potassium cyanide from mining—that’s enough potassium cyanide to kill the entire Strip. Las Vegas is crazy.” Given these stories, it's understandable why VanAlstyne doesn't cold-buy off the street. “I do get a lot of people who are like ‘grandpa was a dentist’ or ‘my father was in medicine in the ‘40s,’” she says.

There is no “typical” Las Vegas Oddities customer, according to VanAlstyne, but visitors to her store are usually connoisseurs of some sort. “People who are in a field tend to collect things from that field—a lot of doctors or dentists or dental hygienists," she says. "Then you have your history buffs or your horror fans.” Circus sideshow memorabilia is popular—“this is a very circus/sideshow kind of town,” VanAlstyne says—and, of course, natural history stuff: The shop sells everything from mounted beetles to taxidermied bats.

6. Uncommon Objects // Austin, Texas

Austin's Uncommon Objects was founded in 1991 as an antique collective, but over the years it has evolved, according to its website, "into the one-of-a-kind emporium of transcendent junk" assembled by 24 antique vendors. But the shop doesn't just sell antiques. One of the favorite oddities Uncommon Objects owner Steve Wiman has ever sold were bovine hairballs that form naturally in a cow’s stomach. “They lick their hair and it doesn’t dissolve,” Wiman tells Mental Floss. “They weren’t really heavy—they were spherical and looked like softballs—but you could see tiny hairs and several different tones. I would have never known what it was if I hadn’t been told, but they came from a slaughter house." (Cows can't vomit, so these hairballs are only found after death.) "I sold the collection to someone who had a cattle ranch. I think they ended up in a good home.”

In addition to the semi-gross, Uncommon Objects also deals in the creepy and macabre, although maybe not intentionally. “We get people coming through the front door sometimes asking if we have any haunted items, and our answer is, ‘See if you feel if anything haunted is in here,’" he says. "We’ve had paranormal groups come through and we’ve turned off the power in the shop and they’ve caught a lot of things they felt might be haunted.” Does Wiman himself believe in ghosts? “I think most people who deal with old stuff find that there’s an energy that comes off some stuff, and there’s some stuff that’s a little twisted or perverse without any explanation.”

One night, the store’s alarm went off and Wiman was called to the store by the cops while they conducted their search of the premises. Fortunately, it was a false alarm, but an idea for an in-store event was formed. “We’re in conversation now about doing flashlight tours around Halloween,” Wiman says. “When I saw what they were seeing just via flashlight—like when you come upon a baboon head or a creepy doll—it’s a very different experience from what you see during the day.”

One of the store’s most dedicated customers is YouTube sensation Grav3yard Girl, who, with 8.5 million subscribers and regular Uncommon Objects "hauls," brings the store—and most likely oddities shops in general—a ton of business. “Creepy dolls are one of the things she’s bought for many, many years,” Wiman says. “She’s made them desirable to people who maybe wouldn’t have been into them.”

7. Woolly Mammoth // Chicago, Illinois

A mummified human head from Chicago's Woolly Mammoth
Courtesy of Woolly Mammoth

Even the origins of Chicago's Woolly Mammoth—a "curiosity cabinet of odd, amusing, and eclectic items resurrected from the past," according to its website—are a little spooky: Husband-and-wife owners Skye and Adam Rust came up with the idea in 2010 while on a trip to Transylvania, Romania, where they visited sites associated with Vlad the Impaler.

According to the Rusts, the creepiest oddity they ever sold is also their biggest regret. “We acquired a medically prepared, mummified human head,” they wrote in an email while on a buying trip in Europe. “There were cutaways that showed facial nerves, eyelashes, and some mustache remnants. We named him Alexander the Great, and we can barely look at a picture of him without getting sick to our stomachs that we sold him.”

Like Bazaar in Baltimore, Woolly Mammoth also has a John Wayne Gacy painting, but this one is probably even more disturbing than an infamous Pogo drawing: it’s Gacy’s painted depiction of Adolf Hitler. And like Obscura in New York, Woolly Mammoth also sells Victorian mourning hair wreaths, as well as 19th century obstetrics tools—primarily cephalotribes (an instrument that was used to crush the skulls of stillborn fetuses) as well as an in utero mechanical trephine (a saw for removing a cylindrical piece of tissue or bone).

8. Cleveland Curiosities // Cleveland, Ohio

According to Clement Kunkle, who owns Cleveland Curiosities with his wife Hallie Wallace, this generation is into being gothy and weird—hence the rise in popularity of oddities shops. Kunkle has always been a bit pleasantly gothy and weird himself, collecting skulls and engaging in bug-pinning projects and nature-collecting since the age of 13. “It progressively turned into more of a profession,” he tells Mental Floss. At Cleveland Curiosities, though, it’s Wallace who teaches the in-store butterfly-pinning classes, and a photographer friend comes in and does tintype photos for anyone who wants one. Back in September, Butch Patrick, the actor who played Eddie Munster on The Munsters, made an in-store appearance.

Some of the creepy stuff in Cleveland Curiosities includes old masquerade clown and devil masks. The store has the requisite two-headed calf, abnormal medical human skulls, and some Victorian human skeletons. For the tamer customers in the Lakewood shopping district, Cleveland Curiosities sells pins, prints and patches from various artists. “They’re not too creepy,” Kunkle says, “but people feel comfortable buying them because they’re just weird enough.”

9. Ye Olde Curiosity Shop // Seattle, Washington

Established in 1899, Seattle’s Ye Olde Curiosity Shop is one of the country’s O.G. curiosity shops. It all began when Joseph Edward Standley, later known to the public as “Daddy Standley,” won a clean desk award as a child and, as a prize, was given a book on natural oddities by his teacher, according to Standley’s great-great grandson Neal James, one of the store’s managers. Standley began collecting all sorts of things and, as an adult, opened a grocery store that he decorated with his various oddities. “After a while, no one could find the groceries, so he decided to open this store,” James tells Mental Floss.

The store sells framed spiders and bats, shrunken-head replicas, animal skeletons, and unusual taxidermy. But it’s the store’s museum that contains the most interesting artifacts. There are not one, but two Fiji Mermaids—a half-monkey/half-fish taxidermy creature that originated with Japanese sailors and was made most famous by P.T. Barnum. Another unique item sounds similar to the mummified head from Woolly Mammoth. “We call him Medical Ed, and he’s a head that was mummified and it opens up so that you can study all the inside parts,” James says. “It appears to be something that wasn’t very common. You can’t find many of them anywhere.” Other curious items include bone and ivory jewelry, (more) hairballs from a cow’s stomach, a preserved baby octopus, and a whale eardrum.

James is an encyclopedia of knowledge about the business, and speaks with infectious enthusiasm about each object and oddity. Does he plan to follow in his great-great grandfather’s footsteps? “Most certainly.”

10. The Creeper Gallery // New Hope, Pennsylvania

"Haunted Ralphie," a haunted taxidermied dog, at the Creeper Gallery
Erin McCarthy

Owners and artists D.L. Marian and Danielle Deveroux call their store a "completely unique gallery experience," and they're not kidding. The Creeper Gallery, located on Bridge Street in New Hope, Pennsylvania, is full of unusual original art, vintage taxidermied animals, manuals from secret societies, a human skeleton, and first editions of Edgar Allan Poe's works. Then there's The Red Room, which contains haunted dolls, paintings, and even a leather earhorn that was owned by a Civil War veteran ("family claims they see the spirit of a soldier in the vicinity of the piece," the earhorn's tag notes). Marian and Deveroux find items for the shop all over the world: “There’s no Walmart for it!” Deveroux told CBS. “So we’re hunting and pecking. We’re going far and wide.”

7 Very Victorian Ways to Die

A circa 1860s lithograph titled "Fire: The horrors of crinoline & the destruction of human life."
A circa 1860s lithograph titled "Fire: The horrors of crinoline & the destruction of human life."

In the 19th century, the Grim Reaper was seemingly around every corner. A glass of water, a beautiful dress, or a brightly colored piece of wallpaper could all spell your doom. Poor sanitation, dangerous working practices, and widespread poisons meant that even those in their prime of life were not immune to sudden death. Thankfully, today's scientific advances—and better regulation—have massively improved life expectancy, although some of these dangers still lurk.

1. Flammable Fashion

In the 1850s and '60s, the trend for huge crinoline skirts boomed. These large structured petticoats covered with fabric gave the impression of a voluminous skirt, whereas previously, the look had been achieved by wearing numerous layers of skirts, which was both hot and cumbersome. Crinolines became popular in part because they were light and easy to maneuver.

There was, however, a downside to their design—crinolines, often made of diaphanous materials such as silk and muslin, were highly flammable. Numerous newspapers reported on the scores of women who had the misfortune to get too close to a naked flame. Fanny Longfellow, wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, died in 1861 after her dress went up in flames when a lighted match or small piece of paper fell on her. Longfellow himself attempted to extinguish the flames, but his wife's skirts were so flammable it proved impossible to save her life. Another sad example was Archduchess Mathilde of Austria, who in 1867 is said to have pulled the classic teenage move of hiding a cigarette from her father behind her back and inadvertently set her dress ablaze.

Newspaper reports abounded with editorials on the perils of flouncy fashion, and offered various solutions (sometimes perhaps in jest). The Tablet in 1858 recommended, “We would … suggest that every lady wearing a crinoline, should be accompanied by a footman with a pail of water.” Needless to say, this was not a practical solution, but trends soon moved away from crinolines and the threat of fire lessened.

2. Opium Overdoses

A satirical engraving of an unscrupulous chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanum (tincture of opium)
A satirical engraving of an unscrupulous chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanum (tincture of opium)

Quieting fractious babies has always proved a challenge, but in the 19th century a seemingly wonderful solution was offered: opium. Tinctures of opium, such as Godfrey’s Cordial, were widely used as method to soothe sickly or teething infants. Although it might seem horrifying by modern standards to drug children into listlessness, in the 19th century opium was an extremely popular medicine and, before the days of aspirin, was commonly used as a painkiller and sleeping aid.

Godfrey’s Cordial was especially popular among working-class mothers who often had to return to work soon after the birth of a child. It became not uncommon to dose babies with Godfrey’s to make sure the child remained in a stupor until the mother returned from work. Unfortunately, accidental overdoses were frequent—in 1854 it was estimated that, in Britain, three-quarters of all deaths attributed to opium were of children under 5 years old. Fortunately, better regulation has meant that children’s medicines are now tightly controlled today.

3. Cholera Contamination

Many of us take it for granted that we can turn on the faucet and drink a glass of clean water. However, in the 19th century, as the populations in Europe and America ballooned and increasing numbers of people moved to cities, the infrastructure struggled to cope. Many slums had open sewers in the streets and an unreliable water supply, and communal wells and water pumps were often contaminated with raw sewage. This meant that water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhus became rife.

The cholera outbreaks of the 19th century originated in India, but with the growth of global trade networks it soon spread around the world. A pandemic around 1832 ensued when the disease reached Britain and America for the first time. Several other pandemics swept the world, killing 23,000 people in Britain in 1854 alone. Physician John Snow mapped the cases of cholera in London's Soho that year, and traced the cause to a single water pump that was located near a cesspool. The pump was removed, and cholera cases dropped dramatically. As scientific understanding of the spread of water-borne diseases improved, public water supplies were cleaned up, and the last documented cholera outbreak in the U.S. was in 1911.

4. Arsenic Poisoning

A jar of poisonous Paris Green
Chris goulet, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Colorful green wallpaper was the height of fashion in the Victorian era, largely spearheaded by pre-Raphaelite artists and designers. The green pigment often used, known as Scheele’s Green, had first been developed in 1775 by German-Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, and the key to its vibrant shade was the use of arsenic. Although arsenic was known to be poisonous if eaten, at the time it was thought to be safe as a color pigment.

In 1862 an investigation was carried out after several children from the same family sickened and died within weeks of each other in Limehouse, London. Dr. Thomas Orton investigated the case and concluded that the children had been poisoned by the arsenic in their bedroom's green wallpaper. Arsenic coloring was also used for dresses, hats, upholstery, and cravats. The poison was sprayed on vegetables as insecticide, and even added to beer. Restrictions on its use in food and drink were only added in 1903. Today, historic houses have had their arsenic wallpaper removed, and arsenic-dyed clothes in museum collections are generally kept safely behind glass.

5. Fatal Factories

By the 19th century, rapid industrialization across Europe and America had led to thousands of factories producing everything from fabric to munitions. Numerous adults—and children—were employed in these factories, providing ample opportunity for death and injury.

The cotton factories of Manchester, England, for example, could kill you in a number of ways. First, the air was thick with cotton fibers, which over time built up in workers’ lungs, causing breathing difficulties and lung disease. Then there were the whirling, grinding machines that might catch your sleeve or hair, dragging you into the loom. Children were employed to clean under the machines and retrieve dropped spindles because their small size allowed them to move about under the moving machines—but a trip or a loss of concentration often proved fatal. The huge number of accidents and deaths in factories eventually led to increased regulation—reducing working hours, restricting child labor, and making the machines themselves safer.

6. Sudden Spontaneous Combustion

Some Victorian scientists believed that alcoholism could cause spontaneous combustion. This idea caught the public imagination, and the theory was used by Charles Dickens in Bleak House (1853) to explain the death of the drunken rag and bone man Mr. Krook. In Victorian accounts, the victims were typically overweight and were heavy drinkers, and their bodies had seemingly burst into flame, leaving only their legs intact. Needless to say, the threat of spontaneous combustion was soon seized upon by the temperance movement, who used the supposed link to alcoholism to scare people away from the demon drink.

For example, The Anatomy of Drunkenness by Robert Macnish (1834) described the various types of drunk and devoted a whole chapter to the risk of spontaneous combustion. Macnish recounted a number of case studies, including that of Mary Clues—an inveterate drinker who was found almost entirely incinerated excepting one leg, while the room around her was more or less undamaged. Despite the widespread discussion of spontaneous combustion in the Victorian era, it's now generally considered highly unlikely if not impossible. Modern forensic science has in part explained the phenomena through the “wick effect,” wherein a body on fire produces melted fat that seeps into the clothes, causing a long, slow, self-contained burn that may look like the result of spontaneous combustion—but almost certainly began with an external source.

7. Pestilent Pox

Smallpox has been around for over 12,000 years. Europeans brought the disease to North and South America in the Age of Exploration, killing up to 90 percent of indigenous populations. Smallpox was still prevalent in the 19th century and killed about 30 percent of its victims. Those that survived were often blinded or badly scarred by the virulent pustules. To give some idea of the scale of fatalities, in just one year, 1871, over 50,000 people died of smallpox in Great Britain and Ireland alone.

In 1796 the English doctor Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had caught cow pox appeared to be immune to smallpox. This led Jenner to create the world’s first vaccine. As with many new developments, it took a number of years for vaccination to catch on, but once it did the incidence of smallpox began to fall. In 1980 the World Health Organization declared the disease exterminated—the first virus ever to be completely eradicated world over—thanks to a sustained program of vaccination.

Australian Pals Claim to Have a 25-Year-Old McDonald's Quarter Pounder in Their Possession

PeJo29/iStock via Getty Images
PeJo29/iStock via Getty Images

What's older than Google, Netflix, and Tom Holland? A Quarter Pounder from McDonald's that's been traveling Australia for a quarter of a century. As 7News.com.au reports, the hamburger was purchased from a McDonald's restaurant in the mid-1990s, and roughly 25 years later it shows no signs of rot—a fact that's somehow more repulsive than the alternative.

Adelaide residents Casey Dean and Eduard Nitz bought the Quarter Pounder with Cheese in 1995 with their friend Johnno who was visiting from out-of-town at the time. Unable to finish the patty, Johnno asked his friends to hold on to it for him until his next visit.

He couldn't have guessed the implications of his request. After the meal, Nitz tossed the boxed-up hamburger into his cabinet at home where it would sit until he moved out. The Quarter Pounder remained in pristine condition, so instead of throwing it away, Nitz handed it off to his sister before going to live overseas. She ended up bringing it with her on various moves across the continent. Then, in 2015, Casey Dean became the official guardian of the indestructible sandwich.

As it nears its 25th birthday, the Quarter Pounder is still far from the nasty, moldy mess you'd expect it to be. That's because McDonald's hamburgers aren't very moist to begin with, so they dry out faster than they can decay. It's the same reason beef jerky can last so long; in other words, there are no mystery chemicals at play.

The same phenomenon can be seen in one of the last McDonald's meals ever purchased in Iceland. The unspoiled burger and fries from 2009 are currently on display at a small hotel in the country.

[h/t 7News.com.au]

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