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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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Food
The Gooey History of the Fluffernutter Sandwich

Open any pantry in New England and chances are you’ll find at least one jar of Marshmallow Fluff. Not just any old marshmallow crème, but Fluff; the one manufactured by Durkee-Mower of Lynn, Massachusetts since 1920, and the preferred brand of the northeast. With its familiar red lid and classic blue label, it's long been a favorite guilty pleasure and a kitchen staple beloved throughout the region.

This gooey, spreadable, marshmallow-infused confection is used in countless recipes and found in a variety of baked goods—from whoopie pies and Rice Krispies Treats to chocolate fudge and beyond. And in the beyond lies perhaps the most treasured concoction of all: the Fluffernutter sandwich—a classic New England treat made with white bread, peanut butter, and, you guessed it, Fluff. No jelly required. Or wanted.

There are several claims to the origin of the sandwich. The first begins with Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere—or, not Paul exactly, but his great-great-great-grandchildren Emma and Amory Curtis of Melrose, Massachusetts. Both siblings were highly intelligent and forward-thinkers, and Amory was even accepted into MIT. But when the family couldn’t afford to send him, he founded a Boston-based company in the 1890s that specialized in soda fountain equipment.

He sold the business in 1901 and used the proceeds to buy the entire east side of Crystal Street in Melrose. Soon after he built a house and, in his basement, he created a marshmallow spread known as Snowflake Marshmallow Crème (later called SMAC), which actually predated Fluff. By the early 1910s, the Curtis Marshmallow Factory was established and Snowflake became the first commercially successful shelf-stable marshmallow crème.

Although other companies were manufacturing similar products, it was Emma who set the Curtis brand apart from the rest. She had a knack for marketing and thought up many different ways to popularize their marshmallow crème, including the creation of one-of-a-kind recipes, like sandwiches that featured nuts and marshmallow crème. She shared her culinary gems in a weekly newspaper column and radio show. By 1915, Snowflake was selling nationwide.

During World War I, when Americans were urged to sacrifice meat one day a week, Emma published a recipe for a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich. She named her creation the "Liberty Sandwich," as a person could still obtain his or her daily nutrients while simultaneously supporting the wartime cause. Some have pointed to Emma’s 1918 published recipe as the earliest known example of a Fluffernutter, but the earliest recipe mental_floss can find comes from three years prior. In 1915, the confectioners trade journal Candy and Ice Cream published a list of lunch offerings that candy shops could advertise beyond hot soup. One of them was the "Mallonut Sandwich," which involved peanut butter and "marshmallow whip or mallo topping," spread on lightly toasted whole wheat bread.

Another origin story comes from Somerville, Massachusetts, home to entrepreneur Archibald Query. Query began making his own version of marshmallow crème and selling it door-to-door in 1917. Due to sugar shortages during World War I, his business began to fail. Query quickly sold the rights to his recipe to candy makers H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower in 1920. The cost? A modest $500 for what would go on to become the Marshmallow Fluff empire.

Although the business partners promoted the sandwich treat early in the company’s history, the delicious snack wasn’t officially called the Fluffernutter until the 1960s, when Durkee-Mower hired a PR firm to help them market the sandwich, which resulted in a particularly catchy jingle explaining the recipe.

So who owns the bragging rights? While some anonymous candy shop owner was likely the first to actually put the two together, Emma Curtis created the early precursors and brought the concept to a national audience, and Durkee-Mower added the now-ubiquitous crème and catchy name. And the Fluffernutter has never lost its popularity.

In 2006, the Massachusetts state legislature spent a full week deliberating over whether or not the Fluffernutter should be named the official state sandwich. On one side, some argued that marshmallow crème and peanut butter added to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The history-bound fanatics that stood against them contended that the Fluffernutter was a proud culinary legacy. One state representative even proclaimed, "I’m going to fight to the death for Fluff." True dedication, but the bill has been stalled for more than a decade despite several revivals and subsequent petitions from loyal fans.

But Fluff lovers needn’t despair. There’s a National Fluffernutter Day (October 8) for hardcore fans, and the town of Somerville, Massachusetts still celebrates its Fluff pride with an annual What the Fluff? festival.

"Everyone feels like Fluff is part of their childhood," said self-proclaimed Fluff expert and the festival's executive director, Mimi Graney, in an interview with Boston Magazine. "Whether born in the 1940s or '50s, or '60s, or later—everyone feels nostalgic for Fluff. I think New Englanders in general have a particular fondness for it."

Today, the Fluffernutter sandwich is as much of a part of New England cuisine as baked beans or blueberry pie. While some people live and die by the traditional combination, the sandwich now comes in all shapes and sizes, with the addition of salty and savory toppings as a favorite twist. Wheat bread is as popular as white, and many like to grill their sandwiches for a touch of bistro flair. But don't ask a New Englander to swap out their favorite brand of marshmallow crème. That’s just asking too Fluffing much.

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The Hospital in the Rock
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History
Budapest’s Former Top-Secret Hospital Inside a Cave
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The Hospital in the Rock

At the top of a hill in Budapest, overlooking the Danube River, sits Buda Castle, a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site visited by thousands of tourists every year. Directly underneath the castle, however, lies a less-frequented tourist attraction: a series of ancient, naturally formed caves with a colorful and sometimes disturbing history.

The entire cave system is over six miles long, and most of that has been left unchanged since it was used as cold storage (and a rumored dungeon) in the Middle Ages. Between 1939 and 2008, however, a half-mile stretch of those caves was built up and repurposed many times over. Known as Sziklakorhaz or The Hospital in the Rock, its many uses are a testament to the area’s involvement in World War II and the Cold War.

At the start of World War II, the location served as a single-room air raid center, but operating theaters, corridors, and wards were quickly added to create a much-needed hospital. By early 1944, the hospital had officially opened inside the cave, tending to wounded Hungarian and Nazi soldiers. After less than a year of operation, the facility found itself facing its largest challenge—the Siege of Budapest, which lasted seven weeks and was eventually won by Allied forces on their way to Berlin.

As one of the few area hospitals still operational, the Hospital in the Rock was well over capacity during the siege. Originally built to treat around 70 patients, close to 700 ended up crammed into the claustrophobic caves. The wounded lay three to a bed—if they were lucky enough to get a bed at all. Unsurprisingly, heat from all those bodies raised the ambient temperature to around 95°F, and smoking cigarettes was the number one way to pass the time. Add that to the putrid mix of death, decay, and infection and you’ve got an incredibly unpleasant wartime cocktail.

A recreation inside the museum. Image credit: The Hospital in the Rock 

After the siege, the Soviets took control of the caves (and Budapest itself) and gutted the hospital of most of its supplies. Between 1945 and 1948, the hospital produced a vaccination for typhus. As the icy grasp of the Cold War began to tighten, new wards were built, new equipment was installed, and the hospital was designated top-secret by the Soviets, referred to only by its official codename LOSK 0101/1.

Eleven years after facing the horrors of the Siege of Budapest, in 1956, the hospital hosted the casualties of another battle: The Hungarian Uprising. Thousands of Hungarians revolted against the Soviet policies of the Hungarian People’s Republic in a fierce, prolonged battle. Civilians and soldiers alike lay side-by-side in wards as surgeons attempted to save them. During the uprising, seven babies were also born in the hospital.

Surgeons lived on-site and rarely surfaced from the caves. The hospital’s chief surgeon at the time, Dr. András Máthé, famously had a strict "no amputation" rule, which seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but in the end reportedly saved many patients' lives. (Máthé also reportedly wore a bullet that he’d removed from a patient’s head on a chain around his neck.)

The Hospital in the Rock ceased normal operations in December 1956, after the Soviets squashed the uprising, as the Soviets had new plans for the caves. With the Cold War now in full swing, the still-secret site was converted into a bunker that could serve as a hospital in case of nuclear attack. Diesel engines and an air conditioning system were added in the early '60s, so that even during a blackout, the hospital could still function for a couple of days.

The Hospital in the Rock

The official plan for the bunker was as follows: In the event of a nuclear attack, a selection of doctors and nurses would retreat to the bunker, where they would remain for 72 hours. Afterward, they were to go out and search for survivors. Special quarantined rooms, showering facilities, and even a barbershop were on site for survivors brought back to the site. (The only haircut available to them, however, was a shaved head; radioactive material is notoriously difficult to remove from hair.)

Thankfully, none of these nuclear procedures were ever put into practice. But the hospital was never formally decommissioned, and it wasn’t relieved of its top-secret status until the mid-2000s. For a while, it was still being used as a storage facility by Hungary’s Civil Defense Force. The bunker was maintained by a nearby family, who were sworn to secrecy. In 2004, it was decided that responsibility for the site fell solely on St. John’s Hospital in Budapest, who were seen as the de facto owners in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By 2008 the bunker was renovated, refurbished, and ready to be opened to the public. Today it operates as a museum, with exhibits detailing life in the hospital from various periods of its history, as well as the history of combat medicine as a whole. The sobering hour-long walk around the hospital concludes with a cautionary gaze into the atrocities of nuclear attacks, with the final walk to the exit featuring a gallery of art created by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Another part of the caves beneath Buda Castle. Image credit:Sahil Jatana via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The caves beneath Buda Castle have certainly had a bumpy history, and walking through them now is chilling (and not just because they keep the temperature at around 60°F). A tour through the narrow, oppressive hallways is a glimpse at our narrowly avoided nuclear future—definitely a sobering way to spend an afternoon.

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