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How to Be Entertaining: 10 Simple Instructions from 1904

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Being the life of the party was hard in the early 20th century, especially if you weren’t into reciting poetry or being Jay Gatsby. Thankfully, there were plenty of guidebooks available to help the uninteresting; of those, the least prominent was likely a little book called Cupology: How to Be Entertaining, authored by an Ohio woman known only as Clara. Here are 10 of Clara’s tips, directly from 1904.

1. Be a Fortuneteller

According to Clara, through careful analysis of personalities and mystical tells, a person “can become his own prophet.” The arrangement of dregs in a coffee or teacup can be interpreted in entertaining ways, as the “sensing of atmospheres” can be performed “for the pleasure of guests, both young and old.” And if reading leaves doesn’t suit you, “palm reading [or] solar biology forecasts” are equally diverting for guests and company. Here’s a condensed list of images you’ll probably see in your guests’ leaves, and their interpretations:

Accordion—Primitive talent
Apples—Health, Knowledge
Atlas—Sight, Seeing
Bats—Moral blindness
Bees—Thrift
Bed—Illness or need of rest
Birds—News, Singing, Joys
Bridge—Some event in life
Books—Learning
Cake—Luxury
Cats—Jealousies
Children—Good omen
Circles—Fine realizations
Cow—Good nutriment
Crescent—Love token
Children at play—Universal good
Crosses—Some trials
Chickens—Gains
Crows—Intrigues
Ditch—Dangers ahead
Dogs—Friends
Door—Some opening
Elephant—Some imposition
Eyes—To observe
Feet—Traveler
Feet (bare)—Poverty
Flowers—Joy, Pleasure
Floods—Sickness, Sorrow
Fountain—Public benefit
Fruit—Health
Hearts—Artistic love of Unity, Friends, Home
Hand—Friendship
Houses—Home building
Jewel-Box—Wealth
Lock and Keys—To be put in trust
Lion—Moral courage
Lighted Lamp—Great success
Lock—A secret
Moon—Honors
Monkeys—Evolution—Darwin
News-Boys—Public excitement
Palms—Restful victory
Bats—Thieving
Ring—Contract
Road—An outlook
Rabbit—Timidity, Cowardice
Rainbow—Sublime promise
Saw or Scissors—Vexations
Star—Hope, Promise
Squares—Realizations
Ships—Commerce
Sinking Ships—Perils and loss
Sofa—Social or Courtship
Spiders or Scorpions—Illness, Venom
Tiger—Onslaught
Trees—Lofty thoughts
Wheat—Plenty
Whirlwind—Distraction
Wavy lines—Vexations
Weeds—Petty trials
Window—In a new light.
Scattered objects—Lack of harmony and no propitious time for action

2. It Takes Two to Party

It’s hard to be a lady, what with being constantly nervous and inept. And it’s perhaps just as difficult to be a man with seemingly no ability whatsoever to remember who anyone is or how everyone knows one another. So it’s best to have one of each, a man and a woman, to host each party. What could go wrong?

"The most successful social functions are those managed by a host and hostess," says a society scribe, "not by either alone. Leave a man to make up a party and he is sure to forget that Mrs. B. was engaged to C. before she married D., and that Mrs. C. is aware of the fact, and that the D.s and E.s have long been at daggers drawn, and he will have no eyes to detect the designs of Mrs. H. On the other hand, a woman gets nervous and fatigued with the constant effort to keep the ball rolling, and fails just where a man would succeed. What is wanted is a division of labor, and if this were done oftener there would be less disappointment on the part of entertainers and entertained."

3. Play a Game! (Ladies Only)

Ever heard of the “progressive peanut party”? Well, hold onto your hatpins, chickens, because this is exciting:

Four guests are seated about each table, and on the table is placed a crock full of peanuts. Each guest is provided with a hatpin, and when the word is given all begin jabbing for peanuts. The quartet that empties its crock first wins the game, and then the sets of players change. It is needless to say that the peanut party is strictly a "hen" function. A man couldn't jab a crockful of peanuts with a hatpin in a week, but the young women of Lamar [Missouri] played thirty games in a single afternoon.

4. Check Out Each Other’s Nails

If staring into your own spent teacup and stabbing legumes didn’t overexert you, there’s probably still time to discover your personality through the condition and shape of your fingernails. Get all the ladies in a circle (men need not apply) and take turns examining the hands of the woman to your left. Everything you need to know about her can be summed up thusly:

Broad nails denote a gentle natured person, inclined to be modest and unassuming.

Narrow nails denote a studious but not very gentle nature, with a desire for scientific knowledge.

White nails denote a fondness for society of opposite sex, not overstrong in health and subject to fevers.

Round nails denote a desire for knowledge in general, apt to take great pride in own accomplishments, rather hasty, yet fairly good natured and forgiving.

Long nails denote caution, lacking confidence in human nature, decided in opinion and strictly virtuous.

5. Amaze Her with Simple Math (Men Only!)

Men have long been at a loss for polite methods of determining a woman’s age. Here’s an easy trick, quite entertaining, that would have made for an excellent Facebook post five years ago. Simply approach the woman whose approximate age escapes you and follow this script:

"There is a very simple problem in arithmetic which very few people are able to see
through, yet it is as easy as possible. I wonder if you can do it?"

This sets the person on his dignity, and he or she wants to do it at once. Then you go on:

"Think of a number corresponding to the numerical order of the month in which you were born. Oh, no, you need not tell me." (To make the explanation clear, we will assume that the figure is two—standing for February—and that the age is 30.)

"Now, multiply that figure by 2," you continue, "and add 5. Done that? Well, multiply that by 50 and add your own age. From the total subtract 365, and to the total add 115. Now, what figure have you got?"

"230," replies the person addressed, "Isn't that correct?"

"Exactly," you exclaim. "You are one of the very few persons who have managed it." And you turn away to hide your smile of satisfaction at having discovered that your victim was born in February and that she is thirty years of age. You have arrived at this result by separating the figures 230 into 2 (February) and 30. And you can do this with everybody's age. Try it on your sweetheart.

Just don't ask, ever.

6. Know How to Get a Man (Probably Ladies Only in 1904)

What’s the sense in having a party if you’re just going to sit around bowls of peanuts telling people how old you are? Better have a plan, ladies, and know the rules. To get a man, a woman should:

7. Know an Off-Color Lawyer Joke

Everyone has one. If you don’t have one, don’t use this one, either.

8. Know Other Jokes, Too

Clara’s suggestions leave a little to be desired, but these are the types of jokes an entertaining man or lady tells at a party.

"Goodness," exclaimed the nervous visitor. "What vulgar little hoodlums those noisy boys are out there in the street!"

"I can't see them," said the hostess, "I'm rather near-sighted, you know."

"But surely you can hear how they're shouting and carrying on."

"Yes, but I can't tell whether they're my children or the neighbors’."

9. Finally, a Co-Ed Game

Twentieth century party games are more fun when they don’t involve examining cuticles. (Maybe not much more fun.) Here’s a set of cards for the host or hostess. Give each guest a list of famous assumed names, then a writing implement and a predetermined amount of time in which to guess the real names of the people listed. Offer a prize to the winner, which is the person who correctly guesses the highest number within the allotted time.

10. Maybe Know Just a Little Poetry

Every entertaining person knows one great toast. According to Clara, these were always the most popular at her parties, and she was a lady who knew what it meant to please a crowd.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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