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.

20 Surprising Facts About King Tutankhamun

The burial mask of Egyptian King Tutankhamun.
The burial mask of Egyptian King Tutankhamun.
Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images

If you can only name one Egyptian pharaoh, it’s likely King Tut. Born around 1343 BCE, Tutankhamun made history as the youngest known monarch to preside over the ancient Egyptian empire. But that wasn’t his only claim to fame. In life, King Tut made important political decisions; in death, he captivated the public’s fascination and ignited their interest in mummies.

The discovery of King Tut's pristine tomb in 1922 remains one of the most important moments in all of Egyptian archaeology. From his confusing lineage to his impact on pop culture, here’s what you need to know about King Tutankhamun.

1. King Tut’s parents were related.

Tutankhamun was likely inbred—something that wasn’t uncommon with royal families trying to maintain a “pure” bloodline throughout history. Around 2010, an analysis of DNA taken from the mummies of King Tut and his relatives revealed that the boy pharaoh’s parents had been brother and sister, but that discovery has since been disputed.

Tut’s father has been identified as the heretic Akhenaten, but the identity of his mother remains unknown. At least one archaeologist believes that Tut’s mother was actually Queen Nefertiti—Akhenaten's cousin, and one of his wives.

2. King Tut had an incestuous relationship of his own.

King Tut was married to a woman named Ankhesenamun, who was the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. That made her Tutankhamun’s half-sister—or his full sister, if the theory about Nefertiti being his mother is true.

King Tut fathered two daughters with his wife, but unfortunately, both children were stillborn. Their bodies were mummified and eventually interred in King Tut’s tomb with him. Ankhesenamun outlived Tutankhamun and possibly got married to the pharaoh Ay (Tut’s uncle) after Tut’s death.

3. King Tut became pharaoh at age 9.

As the grandson of the pharaoh Amenhotep II and the son of pharaoh Ankhesenamun, Tutankhamun was destined for the throne. He assumed his position as Egypt’s leader at the young age of 9, and ruled until his death 10 years later around 1324 BCE. It is believed that King Tut is the youngest pharaoh ever to rule over the ancient Egyptian empire. Because he was so young when he came into power, his uncle Ay was likely in charge during those early years.

4. King Tut reversed his father’s religious reforms.

King Tut didn’t need to do much to impress his subjects—his father, pharaoh Akhenaten, had been a disastrous ruler. Akhenaten changed the established religion to focus on the worship of one god, the sun deity Aten, which left him branded as a heretic. Akhenaten also moved the holy capital from Thebes to Amarna.

When Tut became pharaoh he undid his father’s changes and declared Thebes to be the religious center once again. This helped him earn the trust of his people during his brief reign.

5. King Tut changed his name.

Profile of a wooden statue of King Tutankhamun.
Profile of a wooden statue of King Tutankhamun.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

King Tut went by many names during his lifetime. He was born with the name Tutankhaten, which translates to “living image of Aten.” After he become pharaoh, he changed his name to Tutankhamun or “living image of Amun.” This change was a reflection of Tut’s devotion to the god Amun, whom his father had neglected in favor of the god Aten. Today, Tutankhamun is most commonly known as King Tut.

6. King Tut had health issues.

King Tut had a severe bone disease that left him disabled. He had a clubbed left foot, which made it hard for him to move around. In ancient art he is regularly depicted sitting down when engaging in physical activities like archery, whereas other pharaohs were always shown standing up in similar scenarios. It’s believed that Tut’s inbred lineage contributed to his physical issues. CT scans of his mummy showed that his left leg had been broken and infected, which may have contributed to his untimely death.

7. Experts used to suspect that King Tut had been assassinated.

King Tut’s mummy was discovered with a hole in its skull, leading some people to believe that the young pharaoh had been assassinated with a blow to the head. This theory has since been widely debunked by experts. It’s now suspected that the hole was either put there by embalmers when King Tut was being mummified or it was created when archaeologists first removed the mummy’s gold mask. It’s much more likely that the infection in his leg was the cause of his death.

8. A chariot accident may have contributed to King Tut’s death.

King Tutankhamun's burial chariot, which was discovered in the pharaoh's tomb.
King Tutankhamun's burial chariot, which was discovered in the pharaoh's tomb.
Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

If King Tut did indeed die from a broken leg, the question still remains of how he broke his leg in the first place. According to one theory, the teen king died in a horrible chariot accident, which is why one side of his body—including his leg—was found crushed. The chariots used by royalty in ancient Egypt were small and light, allowing them to reach high speeds. Although there’s no evidence that chariots were used for racing during this period, they were used during war and for hunting rides.

9. King Tut wasn’t history’s only young pharaoh.

King Tut was likely the youngest pharaoh to lead Egypt, but not my much. Cleopatra became co-regent with her younger brother (and husband) Ptolemy XIII in 51 BCE when he was just 10 years old. Looking beyond ancient Egypt, there are many young monarchs from history who shave years off Tut’s age record. China, Russia, England, Spain, and France are just a few countries that have crowned “rulers” when they were babies.

10. King Tut’s successors tried to erase him from history.

While King Tut did a lot to reverse his father’s unpopular reforms during his lifetime, none of it did much to protect Tut’s legacy in the long run. His successors did their best to remove his wife, Ankhesenamun, from history—and the memory of Tutankhamun along with her.

Tut was buried quickly and in a small tomb normally reserved for private citizens, not one of the grander tombs meant for pharaohs. Because his tomb was out of the way, it remained untouched for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1922. Now King Tut is the most famous Egyptian pharaoh of all time.

11. King Tut's tomb was robbed—twice.

Crates are carried out of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923.
Crates are carried out of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before King Tut’s tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, it was visited by grave robbers. The first break-in took place shortly after Tutankhamun was laid to rest. Following that initial incident, there was rubble blocking the burial chambers, but it didn't take long for a second set of intruders to tunnel their way in. Carter found the tomb in shambles with entryways blocked off to provide further protection to Tutankhamun.

12. King Tut had three coffins.

Inside King Tut’s stone sarcophagus were three coffins: The outermost pair were made of gilded wood and the inner coffin was crafted out of solid gold. Over the head and shoulders of the mummy was the ornate gold death mask that many people associate with Tutankhamun. The mummy was placed inside the Russian nesting doll-style coffins, and everything was put inside a large quartzite stone sarcophagus with a pink granite top.

13. Some people think King Tut’s tomb is cursed.

King Tut’s tomb has inspired many legends since it was discovered decades ago. Because many people associated with the site have subsequently met with misfortune, stories have spread about its supposed curse. Some of the victims of this so-called curse include George Jay Gould, a financier who got sick after visiting the tomb in 1923, and George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who died of blood poisoning after funding the dig. This so-called curse has been blamed for more than a dozen deaths.

14. King Tut was entombed with a meteorite dagger.

The tomb of Tutankhamun contained many extraordinary objects, one of which was a dagger carved from a meteorite. The dagger was found on the body of the mummy when he was discovered, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry revealed that the materials came from space. The iron in the blade contained 10.8 percent nickel and .58 percent cobalt. Such a high nickel percentage indicated that the iron came from a meteorite, not Earth.

15. There are no hidden rooms in King Tut’s tomb.

Archaeologists surrounding sarcophagus in King Tut's tomb.
Archaeologists surrounding sarcophagus in King Tut's tomb.
Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images

Even after it was excavated, King Tut’s tomb continued to capture the imaginations of archaeologists. In 2015, a British archaeologist put forth a theory based on laser scans that a second room was hidden behind a wall of the tomb and waiting to be explored. He even suggested that Tutankhamun’s stepmother, Queen Nefertiti, might be entombed there. That idea was put to rest when a comprehensive ground-penetrating radar survey showed there were no hidden rooms or corridors adjacent to the tomb.

16. DIY repairs were made on King Tut’s burial mask.

After surviving 3000 years in a tomb in Egypt, King Tut’s iconic gold death mask was badly damaged when, around 2014, the mask’s braided beard broke off, and museum curators used epoxy glue to reattach it. This improvised solution may have ended up causing more lasting damage than the accident itself. Epoxy glue is hard to remove, and attempts to scrape off the adhesive resulted in permanent scratch marks on the artifact’s priceless gold face.

17. King Tut was buried with an ancient board game.

The ancient board game senet.
The ancient board game senet.
Dmitry Denisenkov via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the world’s oldest board games was discovered inside King Tut’s tomb. Senet, or “passing,” had been played in Egypt for 1800 years prior to Tutankhamun’s death. It was played by people of all class levels, and though the exact rules have been lost to time, it’s believed to have something to do with life and death. It even may have been an early version of backgammon.

18. King Tut rocked pop culture.

When his tomb was discovered in the early 20th century, King Tut had a massive impact on pop culture. The Egyptian aesthetic infiltrated the 1920s, appearing in fashion, home design, and architecture. Americans especially were so fascinated by King Tut that president Herbert Hoover even went so far as to name his dog after the young monarch. Tut’s impact was felt for decades after his discovery. The historical figure has been depicted countless times in movies, songs, and television shows.

19. King Tut’s tomb recently received a makeover.

English Egyptologist Howard Carter examines the golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1923.
English Egyptologist Howard Carter examines the golden sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1923.
Harry Burton/Apic/Getty Images

After years of traffic from tourists, King Tut’s tomb closed to visitors in 2009 to undergo a long conservation project. At the beginning of 2019, the archaeological site finally reopened to the public. Today, the attraction features an air filtration and ventilation system, restored wall paintings, a viewing platform, and new barriers to protect precious artifacts from viewers. King Tut’s tomb is one of the most popular destinations for tourists visiting Egypt.

20. We may finally know what King Tut really looked like.

By conducting a virtual autopsy of his mummy with CT scan data, scientists were able to build a 3D model of what King Tut may have looked like when he was alive 3000 years ago. The computer-generated image looks much different than the striking face depicted on Tut’s iconic gold mask. Rather than the god-like figure that’s been shown countless times in pop culture, Tutankhamun was a frail, ordinary teenager in reality.

10 Enchanting Places That Align with the Vernal Equinox

A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On Thursday, March 19, the vernal equinox heralded the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Ancient civilizations built calendars and observatories to track the movements of the stars and mark this monumental time. Now, people still partake in a variety of traditions and rituals to honor the day when light and dark become equal. To take your celestial celebrations to the next level, here are 10 places that align with the spring equinox.

1. On the vernal equinox, a massive snake appears on the temple at Chichen Itza.

Legend says that on the spring and fall equinoxes, the Maya city of Chichen Itza receives an otherworldly visitor: Kukulcan, the feathered serpent deity. On these days, a shadowy snake slithers down the side of the god's namesake pyramid. As the temple darkens, a single strip of light stretches from the top of the northern staircase to the snake head resting at the bottom, creating the illusion of a wriggling reptile.

2. A beam of light illuminates a petroglyph within Arizona’s Boulder House each vernal equinox.

The Boulder House in Scottsdale, Arizona, looks like a strange home wedged amid a jumble of rocks. But it’s actually a modern house built around a sacred Native American site. The Empie family, who bought the parcel of desert land in the 1980s, commissioned architect Charles Johnson to transform the cluster of 1.6-billion-year-old boulders into a functional house. Johnson crafted a unique structure, incorporating the rocks into the house’s foundation and preserving the prehistoric carvings. On the equinox, sunlight pierces between two boulders in the unusual abode, striking a spiral petroglyph on the wall to create a dazzling piece of home decor.

3. On the vernal equinox, a group of Moai on Easter Island stare directly at the sunset.

Seven Moai gaze face toward the horizon
On the equinox, these Moai stare directly at the setting sun.
abriendomundo/iStock via Getty Images

People aren’t the only ones who pause to watch the sun slip beneath the horizon on the first day of spring. On Easter Island, at a sacred site called Ahu Akivi, a line of seven Moai—the island’s giant, mysterious heads—gaze directly at the point at which the sun sets in the sky on the equinox.

4. Each vernal equinox, light drenches a petroglyph-filled cairn at Loughcrew.

The hills of Loughcrew, one of Ireland’s four main passage tomb sites, are crowned by 5000-year-old megalithic structures. At dawn on the equinox, sunlight fills Cairn T, a passage tomb carved with astoundingly well-preserved examples of Neolithic art. As the light dissolves the darkness, the cup marks that dimple its walls and the symbols adorning its back stones blaze into view. The illumination lasts for about 50 minutes, giving observers ample time to take turns squeezing into the cairn.

5. On the vernal equinox, light streams through one of the Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples.

The Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples on Malta’s southern coast are archaeological wonders. They were built between 3600 and 2500 BCE and are believed to be among the world’s oldest freestanding stone buildings. Not much is known about the people who created these megalithic masterpieces, though it’s clear they constructed one of the temples with an eye to the heavens. On the equinox, the sun streams through the South Temple’s main doorway, flooding the structure’s major axis with light.

6. On the vernal equinox, the sun sits directly atop the main temple at Angkor Wat.

Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat would be a magical experience any day. Crowds hush as colorful hues paint the world’s largest religious structure with a gilded glow. Dawn at Angkor Wat is even more special on the equinoxes. Then, the sun rises behind the main temple before briefly seeming to balance on its tip like a fiery halo.

7. On the spring equinox, the sun rises through the entrance to Stonehenge Aotearoa.

Stonehenge has inspired replicas around the globe—including as far away as New Zealand. Stonehenge Aotearoa, which opened in 2005, was built by the Phoenix Astronomical Society. The structure is an astronomical tool for observing the local skies, and blends modern astronomy with ancient starlore. If you stand in the center of the circle on the Southern Hemisphere's vernal equinox, you can watch the sun rise directly through the Sun Gate, two carved pillars that flank the entrance to the henge.

8. The shadow of the intihuatana at Machu Picchu disappears at noon on the equinox.

A curious stone structure stands atop a temple at Machu Picchu. It’s one of the rare surviving intihuatanas that wasn’t demolished by the Spanish conquistadors. This “hitching post of the sun” is believed to have been an astronomical tool. At noon on the equinox, the granite pillar’s shadow briefly vanishes. Unfortunately, the invaluable object now looks a bit battered. In 2000, a crane toppled into the intihuatana during the filming of a beer commercial, smashing part of it.

9. At sunrise on the spring equinox, the sun bursts through the door of a temple at Dzibilchaltún.

Sunrise at Dzibilchaltún
Each equinox, the sun appears within the door of the Temple of the Seven Dolls.
renatamsousa/iStock via Getty Images

Though now reduced to a medley of ruins dotting the jungle, Dzibilchaltún was once the longest continually inhabited Maya administrative and ceremonial city. The star attraction here is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, a building named for the mysterious human-like figures discovered inside. At dawn on the equinox, the sun shines through the temple’s main door. It’s believed the sacred structure was aligned with the equinoxes to mark the beginning of the planting season and the end of the harvesting season.

10. The 'Woodhenge' at the Cahokia Mounds aligns with the sunrise on the equinox.

During the Mississippian cultural period, Cahokia's population exceeded that of London. In addition to giant pyramids, the North American city also featured circles of wooden posts, since dubbed “Woodhenge.” The wooden markers were likely used to track the sun’s movements. One of the posts aligns with the equinoxes, as well as with the front of Monks Mound. On sunrise on the equinox, it looks as though the sun is emerging from the enigmatic earthwork.

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