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What Is That? 9 Peculiar Artifacts of Yesteryear

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Walk through life with a 6-year-old and you find yourself often answering the question “What was that for?” It's applicable for everything from phone booths (“Is that a TARDIS?”) to cathode TVs (“That TV’s fat.”) to cassette tapes (“Look at all the brown string that comes out!”). It can be depressing. So, let’s let the grownups have a turn. Some of these objects do have modern counterparts. Most serve needs we no longer have, leaving us to ask, what was that used for? 

1. Lawn rollers

Nowadays, most of us have front yards that were cut and leveled by professional developers with heavy equipment. But this wasn’t always so. As people began to build the beautiful old houses that make up our historic neighborhoods, turning the trampled mud and weeds that surrounded them into lush welcoming lawns was their own responsibility. Lawn rollers (above), heavy cement wheels that could be attached to a tractor (or pushed if you were angry at your spinal discs), were best used on lighter, sandy soil that needed help taking seed. The heavy wheel helped smooth out tilled dirt and pack grass seed firmly into it. They reportedly could help keep the grown turf adhered to the dirt, too.

2. Obstetric Phantoms

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If you look closely, you’ll probably see more than you ever wanted to. There’s a gangly little baby, with yellow pillow placenta, inside a whitish womb, all stored in a small creepy hollowed out torso. Obstetric phantoms have been used for centuries to train doctors and midwives to assist the birth of babies. This 18th century Italian phantom would allow the teacher to manipulate the fetus, whose head you can just see emerging from the phantom’s vagina (best band name ever). This way the instructor could imitate some of the dangerous variables a midwife would encounter and train her students to compensate for them.

3. Hair Receivers  

Etsy

The hair you pull out of your hairbrush, are you throwing it away? Shame on you. Use a hair receiver! From Victorian times to the early 20th century, a lady would put the hair collected from her hairbrush into a lovely pot like this one. The hair could be reused in many ways. Stuffing pillows, pincushions (hair was often more fragrant than now, due to use of oils and perfume in place of washing), and hair ratts. Hair ratts were sewed up, potato-sized bundles of hair that a woman could use to give her hairdos fullness and variety. And you wonder why your hair is so flat and lifeless, Wendy Wasteful.

 

4. Beauty Micrometer

Lela London

Max Factor’s Beauty Micrometer was invented to help movie make-up men pinpoint exactly what was wrong with a starlet’s face. It could be adjusted 325 different ways, and would scientifically reveal how far a face deviated from the perfection of the mean. Even if the imperfections were invisible to the naked eye.

As ridiculous and painful as this thing looked, there likely wasn’t a single starlet in Hollywood who would argue with Max Factor if he told her to put it on. Max Factor figured out in the 1920s how to cook up cosmetics that actually looked good on camera. Until then actors had been using greasepaint. He kept adapting his recipes every time the method of film-making changed, taking into account things like speed of film and heat of lights. So if Max Factor told you to put on a Hellraiser mask so he could pinpoint every flaw on your face, you put on the damn mask.

5. Mortsafe

Wikimedia Commons

Medical science was absolutely booming in the 19th century. The renowned medical schools of the United Kingdom were turning out brilliant doctors, partially due to how often students were able to witness the dissection of actual human cadavers. People didn’t donate their bodies to science back then; in fact ,many believed a body had to be wholly intact to ascend to Heaven. The only legal source of cadavers were the bodies of executed criminals. That was fine until the medical schools got bigger and the pool of crimes punishable by death got smaller. Enter the burgeoning field of grave robbing. Fresh cadavers sold, no questions asked, to medical schools. In parts of Scotland the fear of losing your loved one to science was so great that people began to fortify the graves of the departed. There were many different designs for mortsafes: some were cages, some just heavy rock slabs laid over the grave that could be removed after time, and some were heavy metal coffins, as pictured.   

6. Antimony Cup

Wikimedia Commons

Nothing will clean you out and leave you feeling as refreshed as using a cupful of toxic wine to make yourself violently ill. At least that was the popular notion in the 18th century. The cups were made of antimony, a metal that would react with the acid in wine to produce a purgative. That is to say, every fluid in your digestive tract would race for whichever exit was closest.

This was considered fine medicine, unless the wine used had too high of an acid content. Then it was considered accidental death by poisoning. Families would often pass down their Antimony Cups through the generations, a general curative for countless ailments.  As awful as this is, it could be considered superior to use of the Antimony Pill, which when swallowed would have the same effect. The metal pill itself would travel undigested and unchanged through the digestive tract, where it was retrieved … and reused. Over and over again. They called it “The Everlasting Pill.”

7. Perforation Paddle

Smithsonian

Your mind, like my own, perhaps goes to a dark place at the sight of this. Fear not. The only backside this paddle was used on was that of the highly deserving Yellow Fever. The Board of Health in Montgomery, Alabama used this paddle in 1899 to poke holes in the mail. This was to prepare it for effective fumigation, hoping to stop the spread of the disease. The people of the era weren’t sure how Yellow Fever was transmitted (mosquito bites), so they tried to contain outbreaks by any means possible. It was useless, but you have to admire their determination and ingenuity.

8. Wooden Leper Clappers

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Biblical lepers were required by law to stay away from The Normies, but should they have to come near to civilization, they were to cry out, “UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!” to announce their approach. Things were more civilized by the 17th century, when lepers could save their voices and just rattle clappers like these (which are actually replicas) to announce their miserable presence. Some historians believe the clappers were also a sound associated with the most desperate of beggars, and helped lepers in their daily fight for the charity that sustained them.

9. Dummy Tanks

Wikimedia Commons

If you looked closely, you’d see a weird wooden jungle gym covered in green tarp. But if you were doing a flyover re-con mission, you would see a fortified line containing many more tanks than you thought your enemy possessed. So many you might even divert your planned attack to the route your enemy wanted you to go in the first place.  Decoy tanks were first used to deceive and intimidate enemies in WWI by Allied forces, and by both sides in WWII (inflatable tanks were popular during that time).  Some sources indicate the US Army still use decoy tanks that replicate M1s, right down to their infrared heat signature. 

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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