6 Terrifying Beauty Practices from History

Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Woman, iStock. Corset X-Ray, Public Domain.
Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Woman, iStock. Corset X-Ray, Public Domain.

Chemical peels that burn layers of skin from your face. Appetite suppressants that come with a risk of heart failure. Cosmetic surgeries that change the appearance of a woman’s most intimate parts. There are plenty of modern cosmetic practices that run the gamut from physically painful to medically risky. But most don’t hold a candle to the hazardous cosmetic techniques of yore. Check out these historic beauty practices that are even scarier than modern ones.

1. WEARING CORSETS

You know what really turns men off? When women take deep breaths. In the 1800s, the invention of metal eyelets allowed women to cinch their corsets tighter than ever before, with acute medical consequences. In fairness, not all women tightened their corsets to the point of injury, and probably none of them achieved the 14-inch waist advertised in 19th century fashion magazines. But the stylish undergarments were often laced so tightly that they restricted women’s breathing. In the long term, wearing corsets caused muscle atrophy, deformed the ribcage, and misaligned the spine. And extreme corset use wasn’t just limited to women, as indicated by the warped ribs of a 19th-century Englishman whose body was excavated in the early 2000s. The study authors felt that it was likely an orthopedic corset, but noted “corset use to obtain a fashionable silhouette cannot be ruled out.”

2. EATING ARSENIC

In the 19th century and earlier, some people (mainly in Styria, a region that encompassed parts of modern Austria and Slovenia) consumed arsenic to “produce a blooming complexion, a brilliant eye, and an appearance of embonpoint [sexy stoutness],” according to one 1857 magazine article on the practice. There were safety rules, of course: You were only supposed to take it while the moon was waxing, and you could only eat only a dose as big as a single grain of millet at first. If you took more than that before you built up a tolerance, you could die. Once you began eating arsenic regularly, though, if you ever stopped, you’d suffer from painful withdrawal symptoms like vomiting and muscle spasms. But wait, there was another downside—because arsenic interferes iodine necessary for thyroid function, eating it gave people goiters. Blooming, brilliant, embonpoint goiters.

3. FOOT BINDING

A tradition that likely started around the late 10th century, foot binding was designed to turn a woman’s feet into 3-inch-long “golden lotuses” by folding the toes under and binding them tightly. The extremely painful practice began when a child was as young as 3 to 4 years old and continued into adulthood. The resulting wobbly walk and doll-like feet were considered highly attractive and vital to a woman’s marriage prospects. This one isn’t limited to the distant past, either: Foot binding wasn’t completely stamped out until China’s Communist Revolution in 1949, and there are still living Chinese women who feet were bound as children.

4. APPLYING RADIOACTIVE FACE CREAM

In the early 20th century, before anyone knew about the health risks of radiation, radioactive consumer products were all the rage. In the 1930s, an enterprising doctor named Alfred Curie capitalized his association with the famous radioactive researchers (who he definitely wasn’t related to) to launch Tho-radia, a French cosmetics brand whose products featured radioactive chemicals like thorium chloride and radium bromide. Advertisements for his face cream claimed that the radioactive formula could stimulate “cellular vitality,” firm up skin, cure boils and pimples, even out redness and pigmentation, erase wrinkles, stop aging, and help retain the “freshness and brightness of the complexion.” It’s all vitality and brightness until someone’s jaw falls off.

5. MAKING EYEDROPS OUT OF DEADLY NIGHTSHADE

Deadly nightshade is also called belladonna, or “beautiful woman,” a likely reference to its role in the cosmetic routines of ladies in Renaissance Italy and beyond. Italian women—and later, women in Victorian England—would squeeze drops of deadly nightshade into their eyes to dilate their pupils for a striking, wide-eyed look they thought was seductive. Unfortunately, the side effects included blurry vision, vertigo, and headaches. And the blindness reported to result from its extended use? Worth it, as long as you got the watery-eyed look of a consumptive. The active ingredient in deadly nightshade, atropine, is still used today to dilate the eyes during eye exams, but unlike the cosmetic belladonna drops of the past, the highly diluted modern versions won’t blind you.

6. USING LEAD MAKEUP

The 1700s were rough on the complexion. Even if you don’t count the miasmic filth in which even the richest people lived, there was smallpox to contend with—by the end of the 18th century, an estimated 400,000 Europeans were dying of it every year. If you were lucky enough to survive, the disease left severe scarring. The best way to cover these pockmarks and other cosmetic imperfections was lead face powder, and both men and women took advantage of it. It's great stuff—inexpensive and easy to make, coats well, and has a silky finish. Except even then, it was known to be wildly toxic. Not only did it cause eye inflammation, tooth rot, and baldness, but it also made the skin blacken over time, requiring yet more of the noxious powder to achieve the pure white face, shoulders, and chest that were so fashionable. Ah yes, and then there was the fact that using it could eventually kill you.

BONUS: EATING TAPEWORMS (MAYBE)

This controversial fad diet—which may or may not have actually existed—was not only dangerous, but also really gross. In the early 1900s, several newspaper accounts reported that women were eating pills filled with tapeworm eggs as a way to lose weight. The tapeworm eggs would supposedly hatch and take up residence in the intestine of their poor, plump host, consuming the nutrients that would otherwise be digested. This would keep the person malnourished and thin. However, even a century ago, doctors doubted people would subject themselves to this kind of pain to look good. In 1912, The Washington Post ran an article called “Tapeworm Pills For Fat People Merely A Wild Yarn, Say Experts.” But as we know, people have done crazier things in the name of beauty.

A version of this story ran in 2013.

History Vs. Podcast Bonus Episode: Theodore Roosevelt vs. Bigfoot

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Erin McCarthy: Hello and welcome to a very special bonus episode of History Vs., a podcast from Mental Floss and iHeartRadio about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and today, we’re going to be exploring a tale Theodore Roosevelt wrote about in his book The Wilderness Hunter, a memoir of his time on the frontier, which was published in 1893. Many of the stories in the book are just what you’d expect from a big game hunter like TR, but there’s one unusual tale that stands out from the rest, one that Roosevelt called “a goblin story which rather impressed me.”

Here to tell us about what’s now known as The Bauman Incident is Mental Floss science editor Kat Long, who wrote a piece about the event for us.

Kat Long: A couple years ago I visited a small village on the central coast of British Columbia, where members of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation have cultural stories about sasquatches, or buk’wis in the local language. They also shared with me a lot of stories about sasquatches and their personal encounters with them in their ancestral territory.

McCarthy: Is that why when I asked someone to write this story, you volunteered so quickly?

Long: Yes, it is.

McCarthy: What was the Bauman incident?

Long: The Bauman Incident supposedly occurred in the mountains of western Montana and northwestern Wyoming, which in the late 19th century was still the Montana Territory.

On one of TR’s hunting trips to the region, he met a grizzled old trapper named Bauman who told him a wild tale.

TR doesn’t mention Bauman’s first name, but it may have been Carl L. Bauman. According to a Montana Historical Society journal, this Carl L. Bauman was born in Germany in 1831. He moved west in the 1860s, and died in Montana in 1909. So that timeline and geographical detail fits with TR’s account, but we don’t have any proof that he was the one.

Bauman told TR how, as a young man, he and a friend went into the Montana forest to hunt beaver. And they set up their traps in a mountain pass that had been the scene of another trapper’s mysterious, gruesome death the year before.

So over a few days and nights, Bauman and his friend were tormented by a strange animal that destroyed their camp, and it howled with the cover of the trees, and watched them as they slept and all kinds of creepy activities. And in the morning, they found footprints indicating that the creature walked upright.

Finally, after a few days of this, they couldn’t take it anymore, and as they packed up to leave, Bauman had to walk a few miles away to gather up some beaver traps from a stream and when he returned to the campsite, he found his friend dead, with fang marks in his neck. The scariest part about it was that the beast had not devoured the flesh, but merely—and this is what TR wrote—“romped and gamboled round it in [an] uncouth, ferocious glee.”

McCarthy: What did they think was the culprit?

Long: TR writes in the beginning of the story that the culprit could have been “merely some abnormally wicked and cunning wild beast, but … no man can say.” He also suggests that Bauman thought it was “something either half human or half devil, some great goblin beast.” Bauman doesn’t tell TR what he thought it was, and TR never comes right out and says it, but he seems to imply that it was a sasquatch.

McCarthy: But he wouldn’t have called it sasquatch or Bigfoot, because according to the Oxford English Dictionary, we weren’t using those words yet—sasquatch didn’t come around until the late 1920s, and Bigfoot until the late 1950s. So anyway—why do people think this incident involved a sasquatch? Was that something they believed in at that time?

Long: Tales of “hairy giants” or “wild men” of the forest were already circulating around the Pacific Northwest and indigenous peoples of the region had legends including sasquatch-like characters. So they also shared tales of seeing and interacting with the actual sasquatches with the white trappers they met, and then the white trappers and hunters picked up the tale and retold the stories.

McCarthy: What’s the differences between what’s in this account and what’s in the account of indigenous peoples’ encounters with the sasquatch?

Long: The Kitasoo say sasquatches are shy and generally stay out of people’s way, and they are definitely not known as bloodthirsty murderers. But they do, however, scream really loudly in this really high-pitched freaky sound, and they also really stink, and TR mentioned those two characteristics in his account of the Bauman Incident as well.

McCarthy: What are some of the encounters that the Kitasoo told you about with sasquatch?

Long: I remember one story that was told to me by one of the leaders in the community that they were out overnight on a beach gathering clams, because it was the time of year when the tide was out and they could dig them up out of the beach really easily. So they’d been doing this all night and they were sort of gathered around the beach. Some of the members of the group heard this crazy scream coming out of the woods. They looked over to the elder of the group and the elder wasn’t doing anything, he didn’t seem alarmed at all, so they were like “OK, we’ll just continue doing our thing,” but they kept hearing this scream just out of the woods. And it is very quiet up there, I mean, it would have been shocking. And so [they] kind of gathered closer and closer to the boat they had all come in on. The elder said “Why aren’t you out gathering clams? What’s going on?” and all of a sudden, this piercing, super loud scream just came out of the woods, and he suddenly looked incredibly shocked and started banging the anchor on the boat trying to scare whatever it was away, and everybody jumped on the boat and motored away as fast as they could.

So in that story, we see the sasquatch screaming. They didn’t see him—it really stayed out of sight—but it was kind of like, the sasquatch might have been a little curious about what they were doing and was trying to get their attention, but then they just got the hell out of there.

McCarthy: They were like “we don’t see you, and based on that noise, we don’t want to see you.”

Long: Yeah.

McCarthy: How often are they having encounters like this? I mean, are they common?

Long: A lot of people in the village have had them, but they don’t happen every day or anything like that. They may happen, to each person, maybe a few times in their life.

McCarthy: And what do they say to Western science’s belief that sasquatch isn’t real?

Long: They understand that a lot of people don’t think that they’re real, or they don’t believe them when they say they’ve seen them with their own eyes, and their response to that is “well, you know, we don’t need some Western scientist telling me whether they exist or not. I’ve seen them,” or, “Elders in our community have seen them and I believe what they say,” or, “Our stories over generations and generations all talk about them, so how can they not exist?”

McCarthy: And one thing that I thought was really interesting about your piece is that I think you went back to one of the elders, and you asked him, right, and he said, “Just because we haven’t found a skeleton or bones or anything doesn’t mean anything—I’ve never found a bear skeleton in the woods either.”

Long: Exactly.

McCarthy: Which is a pretty good point.

Long: Yeah. Yeah. It really makes you think. We know a lot about what’s out in the forest, but there’s a lot that we don’t know, and so … we’ll just kind of have to leave that where it is.

McCarthy: So TR was a pretty practical dude, and he was not really given to flights of fancy. So how did he explain what happened here?

Long: TR wrote that Bauman was of German ancestry, and must have heard “all kinds of ghost and goblin lore, so that many fearsome superstitions were latent in his mind.”

He also said that Bauman had heard tales from the Native American medicine men of “snow-walkers … spectres, and the formless evil beings that haunt the forest depths.”

TR says that Bauman “must have believed what he said, for he could hardly repress a shudder at certain points of the tale.”

McCarthy: Have any scientists thought about what the animal actually was?

Long: I don’t think any real scientists have looked into this because from a scientific investigation point of view, there aren’t many specific clues to go on, and no physical evidence that could be tested for, like, sasquatch DNA or they don’t have any material to test for stable isotopes, which can show where an animal has been or what it’s eaten, or that kind of thing.

McCarthy: Besides the walking on two feet thing, it almost sounds like it could be a mountain lion—people say that a cougar screaming sounds like “a woman screaming for her life.” TR himself once said that “No man could well listen to a stranger and wilder sound.”

Long: What I was thinking is that maybe a cougar was attacking a bear that was walking upright, which would cover all the bases.

McCarthy: Yes, that was definitely it. That was definitely, definitely it. Well, I guess this is just one of those mysteries that we are never going to solve.

Thanks to Kat Long for joining us, and thanks for listening to this special bonus episode of History Vs. We’ll be back with another bonus episode in a few weeks.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

Subscribe to History Vs. Apple Podcasts here.

10 Surprising Facts About Malcolm X

Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Minister and civil rights activist Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) was profoundly influential during the middle of the 20th century. From his birth on May 19, 1925 to February 21, 1965, the day he was assassinated at a New York City rally, he rose to the national scene as a leading voice advocating for black self-determinism, self-defense, and pan-Africanism. His fiery rhetoric is often spoken of in tandem with (really, in contrast to) Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent movement, but X was far more complex than his historical image as a firebrand suggests.

1. Malcolm X’s parents were harassed into moving by racists more than once.

Malcolm’s parents, Louise and Earl, were devotees of pan-Africanist and Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) founder Marcus Garvey. A Baptist preacher, Earl was a leader in their local UNIA chapter in Omaha, Nebraska, and Louise acted as secretary, tasked with inter-chapter communication. Their activities caught the ire of Ku Klux Klan members, whose threats sent the family packing for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then to Lansing, Michigan, by the time Malcolm was a year old. There, it was the white supremacist group Black Legion that regularly harassed the Littles. Their family home burned when Malcolm was 4 (his father blamed the Black Legion), and his father was killed in what was ruled a streetcar accident when Malcolm was 6 years old (his mother also blamed the Black Legion).

2. Malcolm X grew up in foster homes.

When Malcolm was 13, his mother entered Kalamazoo State Hospital following a nervous breakdown, sending Malcolm and his seven siblings to various foster families, boarding houses, and state-run institutions. He entered a detention home in Mason, Michigan, after being expelled for putting a thumbtack on a teacher’s chair. While there, he noted that the white couple who ran it and white politicians who visited treated him kindly, but not like he was a fellow human being.

3. Malcolm X dropped out of school after discouragement from his teacher.

Malcolm was a strong student who aspired to one day become a lawyer, but he dropped out after eighth grade when a teacher told him that his dream job was “no realistic goal for a n*****.” He both diminished and recognized the power of the encounter as an adult, noting that he wouldn’t be accepted as a black man regardless of how smart or talented he was. At the founding rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, he’d famously say, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

4. Malcolm X worked with Redd Foxx at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack.

Before Malcolm became a national civil rights speaker and John Sanford became a nationally beloved comedian, they were known respectively as Detroit Red and Chicago Red because of their red hair. In 1943, they worked as dishwashers at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem and committed petty crimes together. Sanford, whose stage name was Redd Foxx, went on to become one of the first black performers to play to white audiences in Las Vegas, put out several hit comedy albums, and become an icon, starring in the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son.

5. Malcolm X converted to the Nation Of Islam while he was in jail.

In 1946, Malcolm’s larcenies caught up with him, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison (he served seven before earning parole). While incarcerated, his brother Reginald urged him to convert to the Nation of Islam (NOI), and Malcolm soon started studying and then corresponding with its founder Elijah Muhammad, who preached black self-reliance. He visited Muhammad in Chicago after getting out of prison in 1952, and quickly rose through the ranks of the organization as an assistant minister with his impressive oratory and ability to attract new members. The NOI went from 500 members in 1952 to 30,000 in a little over a decade.

6. The X in Malcolm X’s adopted name symbolizes a surname he’d never know.

Like many black Americans, Malcolm’s roots were obscured by the slave trade that stripped him of his true ancestral last name. In 1950, he started signing his name as Malcolm X, viewing the surname “Little” as another tool of oppression. In his autobiography he wrote, “For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.”

7. The FBI created a file for Malcolm X after he wrote to President Truman.

While still in prison, Malcolm wrote a letter to President Harry Truman denouncing the Korean War and declaring himself a Communist. The FBI created a file on him for his Communist affiliation but would later surveil him because of his affiliation and ascendancy within NOI. They continued to track him and record his phone conversations until his assassination, listening in on death threats made against him.

8. Malcolm X inspired Muhammad Ali to join Noi.

On February 25, 1964, the boxer known as Cassius Clay bested Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion. The next day, he proclaimed at a press conference he’d be henceforth known as Cassius X, and a few months later, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. This was the coming out of a spiritual change that had already taken place, guided by Malcolm after the two met in 1962 and cultivated a friendship. Ali was impressed by Malcolm’s speech at a NOI event and the latter became a mentor figure for the up-and-coming fighter.

9. Malcolm X was once opposed to integration.

As Ali’s star was rising as a sports star and NOI member, Malcolm already had one foot out the door of the organization. But during his time in NOI, Malcolm promoted the concept of separation from white society and opposed the mainstream Civil Rights movement for its emphasis on integration. In a speech to the NAACP at Michigan State University in 1963, Malcolm said, “The white community, though it’s all white, is never called a segregated community. It’s a separate community. In the white community, the white controls the economy, his own economy, his own politics, his own everything. But at the same time while the Negro lives in a separate community, it’s a segregated community. Which means it’s regulated from the outside by outsiders ... Separation is when you have your own. You control your own economy. You control your own politics.”

10. Malcolm X’s Hajj profoundly transformed him.

Malcolm butted heads with NOI leadership multiple times by 1964 and was viewed by NOI members as a threat to Elijah Muhammad’s leadership because of his celebrity. In March, he publicly left the organization to found Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity before converting to Sunni Islam and making Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). A state guest of Saudi Prince Faisal, the experience of praying, living, and eating with fellow Muslims of all skin colors shifted his thinking completely. Going forward, he viewed Islam as a means of overcoming racial disunity.

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