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Popular Diet Tips from 100 Years Ago

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For the past century or so, the human race has been struggling to undo the millennia of genetic programming that tells us to eat. Eat what you can, take pleasure in your food, for it may be weeks before you stumble across another wounded aurochs. In the early 20th century, concerns about obesity, mostly cosmetic, resulted in the creation of libraries of diet literature. While most advice had the familiar and reasonable refrain of "eat less and exercise," there were occasional divergences into the maniacal that gave weight-loss advice of this era a memorable, frightening charm.

Are you fat?

The first question you must ask yourself is, "Are you fat?" If you are unsure, Mrs. Annette Kellerman, in her 1918 book Physical Beauty, How to Keep it, has devised a number of tests to reveal your condition. Now get naked.

Here are a few tests to determine how much of you is real woman and how much is just plain fat. In the first place stand before your mirror nude and look yourself over…Now bend over in various attitudes. Are there unsightly wrinkles and rolls of loose flesh? Lie down on a bed or couch on your back…With your free hand grasp the loose skin and flesh that lies above these muscles… if you are too fat there will be big rolls of loose flesh above the tightened muscles. [Physical Beauty, How to Keep it]

Also, check for loose busts.

The woman who is too fat will frequently, though not always, have loose busts. She is likely to have excessive hips. Her knees and ankles, instead of being trim and shapely are likely to be soft and puffy. [Physical Beauty, How to Keep it]

If you're still wavering, another method of determination is presented by the anonymous Countess C__, in her 1901 book, Beauty's Aids: Or, How to Be Beautiful. Your general form. Is it human-shaped? Or do you look like someone mated a manatee with a rodeo monkey?

A very thin woman is not beautiful, but she can be graceful even to a remarkable degree; but what shall we say of an old woman, overflowing with fat, no longer possessing a human form, much less the form of a woman, always gasping, sweating, and breaking out into redness at the slightest movement, looking, in short, vulgar, ridiculous, and half-bestial. [Beauty's Aids: Or, How to Be Beautiful]

Still don't know? This last test will cinch it. Ask yourself, does your flesh escape you like filthy secrets hidden in a pudding bag? From The Woman Beautiful, an 1899 work by Helen Follett Jameson:

[The fat woman] gets into clothes that are skin-tight, and she draws in her corset string until it snaps and gives at every breath and sneeze, and even then she does not look graceful and pretty, for the fat — like secrets — will out, and it rolls over and around like the little bumps and humps in a pudding bag. [The Woman Beautiful]

Napping makes you stupid and fat

Oh dear, dear Pudding Bag, how did you let this happen? Of course overeating can lead to obesity. But did you know naps, or even eight hours of sleep a night, can also pack on the pounds? The experts agree.

Mere napping about for those who already have too much rest and luxury is suicidal to both mind and body. Oversleeping at any time makes one stupid and logy, yes — fat. [Physical Beauty, How to Keep it]

Sleep must be limited to seven hours, and daily naps are strictly tabooed. [The Woman Beautiful]

And if you can't force yourself out of bed, get a much less comfortable bed.

If she cannot give up all that gratifies her palate but produces flesh...exchange her soft and downy bed for a harder one and reduce her sleep by two or three hours daily. [Beauty, Its Attainment and Preservation, 1892]

Basically, too much peace and comfort in life, the very thing our ancestors fought to obtain, is now the offender. Get up, Puddin'. Nap time is over.

First, as regards repose, all soft habits of laziness, long since contracted, must be given up. Bed must be lain in for as short a while as possible, and only entered for sleep; much exercise, even violent exercise, must be taken. [Beauty's Aids: Or, How to Be Beautiful]

Water, the silent enemy

There was once a pervasive belief that water was fattening. The "science" behind it seemed to have to have something to do with water interfering with "gastric juice." If the gastric juice is allowed to attack solid food unimpeded, then...something something…weight loss could occur. This was the theory put forth by Thomas King Chambers in 1852, in his essay Corpulence: Or, Excess of Fat During Pregnancy. He extrapolated his theory that pregnant woman should be denied water to all those who were too stout. His work was supported by some of the era's most respected not-remotely-doctors who wrote medical advice for women.

Said Jameson:

Do not drink much water. A little lemon juice added to it will make it less fattening. [The Woman Beautiful]

The Countess C__ agrees:

First and most important, drink very little, as little as possible, and only red or white wine, preferably Burgundy, or tea or coffee slightly alcoholized. [Beauty's Aids; Or, How to Be Beautiful]

In America the number of fat people is growing larger every year and the suffering endured by this usually good-natured class of people is tremendous. As a matter of fact, a great deal of this discomfort might be avoided if people would not drink such an inordinate quantity of ice water and could be made to understand that thirst does not lie in the stomach and that it is not satisfied by pouring down water by the glassful. [Beauty, Its Attainment and Preservation]

The internal fatbustion engine

Nothing combats excess weight like an active lifestyle. Most diet books of the day strongly encouraged walking, riding, and even swimming. Just not for the reasons you would expect. You see, oxygen burns fat. Literally. You just have to breathe fresh air, and all that nasty fat goes up in smoke. It's just science.

Lina Cavalieri explains in her 1914 My Secrets of Beauty:

Fresh air is a destructive agent to fat. Oxygen burns carbon. To make this clear, let me ask you if you have noticed how a dying fire flames up when a draught of cold air is turned upon it? That is precisely what happens when a woman who is too fat goes out for a walk. Carbon, which is in the great folds of flesh that lie upon her abdomen and blanket her hips, is also a component part of the coat. Oxygen acts upon this as a burning match applied to paper. [My Secrets of Beauty]

Ms. Jameson supports Cavalieri's theory:

Oxygen destroys or burns out carbon, and carbon is fat. The more exercise and fresh air, the more oxygen, and consequently destruction of fat by the one healthy means of remedying obesity. [The Woman Beautiful]

True, human fat contains carbon, but that's because most fat people live on Earth, where all organic life is carbon-based. And oxygen is used in the conversion of fat to energy, but oxygen is used by humans for everything. It is the physical effort of exercise that taps the fat reserves, not air you breathe while doing it.

The porpoise is NOT a slender animal

Outdoor exercise is preferable, but if you are simply too much of a loose-busted corset snapper, there are other, less public options. Cavalieri insists that the stout woman begins her day by doing stretches in front of an open window. Sensible enough. Then, onto the rolling!

Banish all thoughts of going back to bed. Instead begin your rolling. There is no mystery about rolling. It is simply what the name indicates. Down upon the floor you go and roll over and over swiftly, not slowly as a porpoise rolls. The porpoise, you will observe, is not a slender animal. Roll over as a puppy, tingling with the joy of life, rolls in the dust when at play. Roll quickly. Make at least 80 revolutions before stopping. [My Secrets of Beauty]

Jameson can offer you an option even kinder, if you can't exercise your own body, have a machine do it for you!

To those who prefer, mechanical massage can be given, and this will take the place of long walks, although they are really preferable, as the fresh air is necessary. [The Woman Beautiful]

As for the "mechanical massage" that can consume that carbon-y fat just nearly as well as walking,Collector's Weekly has an excellent, horrific collection of what Ms. Jameson might be referring to.

And finally, my little Pudding Bag, if you needed any more motivation to lay off the tap water and get yourself strapped into a mechanical masseuse, this selection from Nathaniel Edward Yorke-Davie's 1889 Foods for the Fat: A Treatise on Corpulency and a Dietary for Its Cure will surely be the inspiration you need.

There are many other evils beyond corpulence that result from excess in eating, and a badly arranged dietary. Among them may be mentioned a deranged digestion, a loaded tongue, an oppressed stomach, vitiated secretions, a gorged liver, plethora and its consequences, a sluggish brain, with horrible dreams during sleep, and depression when awake. [Foods for the Fat: A Treatise on Corpulency and a Dietary for Its Cure]

I don't know what most of those conditions actually are, but they make for some fearful wicked poetry. This little porpoise has some tingling puppy rolls to do.

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Weird
Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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