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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

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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

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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

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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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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
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Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
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Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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WWI Centennial: Battle of Mărăști

By summer 1917 the outlook for the Allies on the Eastern Front was grim at best, as Russia descended into chaos and a combined Austro-German counterattack routed demoralized troops on the Galician front following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, while everywhere the once-great Russian Army was rapidly hollowed by mutiny and mass desertions.

Against this gloomy backdrop, late July brought a rare and unexpected bright spot on the Romanian front, where the Romanian Second Army (rested, reorganized and resupplied after the disaster of 1916) mounted a surprise offensive along with the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies against the junction of the German Ninth Army and Austro-Hungarian First Army, and scored an impressive tactical victory at the Battle of Mărăști, from July 22 to August 1, 1917. However the larger planned offensive failed to materialize, and Romania’s isolated success couldn’t shore up the crumbling Eastern Front amid Russia’s collapse.

Map of Europe July 22 1917
Erik Sass

The Allied success at Mărăști was due to a number of factors, most notably the careful artillery preparation, which saw two days of heavy bombardment of Austro-German positions beginning on July 22, guided by aerial spotters. The Austro-German forces were also deployed on hilly terrain in the foothills of the Vrancea Mountains, meaning their trenches were discontinuous, separated in many places by rough terrain, although they tried to compensate for this with heavily fortified strongholds. Pockets of forest and sheltered gorges also allowed the Romanians to advance in between the zigzagging enemy trenches undetected; on the other hand, the hills and tree cover also made it difficult to move up artillery once the advance began (a task made even more difficult by torrential rain, the familiar companion of the First World War). 

After two days of fierce, concentrated bombardment, on July 24 at 4 a.m. the Romanians and Russian infantry went over the top, with the Romanians advancing along a 30-kilometer-long stretch of front behind a “creeping barrage” of the type recently adopted by the French and British on the Western Front. With three divisions from the Russian Fourth Army supporting them on the southern flank, 56 Romanian battalions advanced up to 19 kilometers in some places – a major breakthrough by the standards of trench warfare. Engineers followed close behind to create roads bypassing the most inaccessible terrain, but unsurprisingly it still proved difficult to move heavy guns as the new roads quickly turned to mud in the rain.

On July 25 the Romanians began to consolidate their gains, spelling the end of major offensive operations during the battle, although smaller actions continued until August 1. The decision was prompted by events elsewhere on the Eastern Front (above, Romanian civilians look at enemy guns captured during the battle). The Battle of Mărăști was supposed to be part of a larger pincer movement by Romanian and Russian forces, including an attack by the Romanian First Army and Russian Sixth Army to the southeast, which were supposed to outflank the German Ninth Army from the southeast. However the disastrous defeat of Russian forces further north in Galicia and Bukovina, widespread insubordination in the Russian Army, and political turmoil in the Russian rear all combined to derail the Allied plan, forcing them to go on the defensive.

The victory at Mărăști was not fruitless: along with an even bigger defensive victory atMărășești two weeks later, Mărăști seriously complicated the Central Powers’ strategy for the remainder of the year, which called for knocking Romania and Russia out of the war before returning to the Western Front to finish off France. 

But the big picture was bad and getting worse, as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops deserted or refused to fight, effectively paralyzing the Allied war effort along most of the Eastern Front, while in Galicia the Austro-German advance continued. Florence Farmborough, a British nurse serving with a Red Cross unit in the Russian Army, described a typical day during the Russian retreat in her diary entry on July 25, 1917 (and noted the growing hostility of ordinary Russian soldiers towards the foreign nurses, representatives of the Western Allies, whom the Russians accused of leaving them in the lurch):

And then there came again that peremptory voice we dreaded. It roused us as no other could ever do, for it was the voice of Retreat. ‘Wake up! Get up at once! No time to lose!’ We started up, seized what we could and helped the orderlies collect the equipment. We were told it was a proruiv [breakthrough] on the right flank of our Front and that the enemy was pouring through the gap. The Sister-on-duty began to weep… Troops were passing quickly by in the darkness; whole regiments were there. We were given a lantern and told to stand by the gate and await transport. Some soldiers entered the yard swearing; we hoped they would not see us. But they did, and soon they were shouting ugly things about us. I too felt like weeping, but we had to keep a straight face and pretend that we had not heard… The soldiers who had always been our patient, grateful men, seemed to have turned against us. Now for the first time we realised that our soldiers might become our enemies and were capable of doing us harm.

This was not an isolated occurrence, but rather one small incident in a rising tide of insubordination and sheer chaos. Later Farmborough noted another encounter:

More soldiers went by in the darkness. There were no officers with them, they too were deserters. Curing and shouting they made their way along the highroad. We were frightened and crouched low against the fence so that they could not see us, and we dared not speak lest they should hear… The night was very dark and the confusion great. Wheels creaked and scrunched; frightened horses slid forwards by leaps and bounds; cart grated against cart; whips twanged and swished; and agitated voices shouted and cursed in one and the same breath... All around us were fires; even in front of us buildings were blazing. My driver said that some of the soldiers thought that they were already surrounded by the enemy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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