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Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)

24 Sure Signs You’re an 1890s Kid

Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)

If you can remember these fashion fads, recess trends, and dubious medical practices, you were definitely an 1890s kid.

1. Acting Up in Class Was Punishable by “Nose Hole” (If You Were Lucky).

Truly bad behavior often led to some old-fashioned corporal punishment. That said, lenient teachers had another card to play when a minor offense was committed. Culprits would be instructed to clasp their hands behind them and press their noses up against a circle drawn on the blackboard (aka: “the nose hole”) for a few embarrassing minutes.

2. You Played “Ante Over” At Recess.

The rules were simple. Two teams would stand on opposite sides of a building and toss a ball over the roof, shouting “Ante-Over!” with each serve. This volleyball-like sport remained a treasured pastime until the Second World War.

3. You Used Cocaine to Fight Toothaches.

Well, that’s one way to get junior to take his medicine! Medicinal toothache drops laden with the addictive substance could be had for a measly fifteen cents per bottle.

4. Ragtime Was Considered Scandalous.

Long before televangelists were denouncing rock ‘n roll, Gilded Age critics complained that Ragtime fanciers had “sold themselves body and soul to the musical devil.”

5. Beautiful Joe Made You Cry.

Scott Plumbe

Marley & Me has nothing on Marshall Saunders! Her 1893 book, told from the perspective of a hopeful little dog, sold just under 1,000,000 copies. Legions of kids fell in love with plucky Joe’s story, and teared up whenever it involved a vicious human abusing him.

6. You Didn't Know if Your New Friends’ Houses had Indoor Plumbing.

Make no mistake—flush toilets were definitely around. But less than a quarter of American homes actually included them late in the 19th century, partially because running water hadn’t yet taken off in many regions.

7. You Knew Gelett Burgess’ Poem “Purple Cow” By Heart.

Thinkstock

“I never saw a purple cow/ I never hope to see one/ But I can tell you anyhow/ I’d rather see than be one.” This simple rhyme (published in 1895) became an unexpected national hit. Overwhelmed by its meme-like popularity, Burgess spoofed his own creation two years later: “O yes, I wrote the Purple Cow/ I’m sorry now I wrote it/ But I can tell you anyhow, / I’ll kill you if you quote it.”

8. Your Mom Really Wanted a Turkish Couch.

Thanks to your good friends at the Sears-Roebuck company, Turkish couches turned into very popular mail-order furnishings. 

9. You Heard the Terrifying Screams of Edison’s Phonograph Dolls.

Not all of Thomas Edison’s inventions were hits. The short-lived “Phonograph Doll” recited pre-recorded nursery rhymes, which were stored on wax records. However, these discs wore out fast—and when they did, the toy released a blood-curdling screech. Parents of traumatized children demanded refunds en masse, forcing Edison to pull the plug.

10. You Had to Curtsy or Bow to Your Teacher Every Morning.

You’d be expected to perform one of these genteel gestures while entering the school-house each day, a ritual called “making your manners." [PDF]

11. You Remember Rover II Mania.

John Kemp Starley’s Rover II safety bicycle was a huge seller in the U.S. and U.K. alike; midway through the decade, some 300 firms were mass-producing them. Cycling was big business, as evidenced by the 100,000-member-strong “League of American Wheelmen.” 

12. If You Were A Boy, You Couldn't Wait to Outgrow Knickers.

Stores and catalogues offered a nearly-endless variety of Knickerbockers, but these were mostly just for kids. Baseball players notwithstanding, young men usually swapped their baggy shorts for a decent pair of trousers in their teen years.

13. You Couldn't Wait to get Your First Shirtwaist.

Putting on one of those blouse-like garments for the first time (around her 15th birthday or so) sometimes felt like a gal’s rite of passage, since younger children largely didn’t wear them.

14. You Remember Jelly-Con’s Sweet Dessert Empire.

Before Jell-O came along, its now-extinct rival, Jelly-Con, offered similar gelatin products “for the immediate production of a delicious and tempting Dessert.” These two companies would later embark on an epic Coke/Pepsi-style advertising duel.

15. You Visited the Local Milk Bar.

Large dairy companies wouldn’t go through the expense of pasteurizing their own milk, so independent street-corner “processing stations” began flourishing in cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago. Trained vendors used to pasteurize pints and quarts of the stuff, which were then sold off at prices even the poorest families could afford.

16. “Rival Policemen” Was Your Favorite Board Game.

The Games We Played, by Margaret Hofer

Competing police forces struggled to catch the largest number of wanted felons in this McLoughlin Brothers classic.

17. You Rooted for the Boxing Gordon Sisters.

Eccentric vaudeville performers were a dime a dozen, but this gaggle of fighting siblings just might’ve taken the cake. Bessie (“Belle”), Minnie, Alice, and Freda Gordon spent several glorious years in the late 1890s and early 1900s slugging it out while touring the east coast, delighting gimmick-loving audiences.

18. You Shouted “Bully!”

Today, we mainly associate this exclamation (meaning “wonderful” or “excellent”) with Theodore Roosevelt’s odd vocabulary, but folks of all ages were yelling “Bully!” long before TR occupied the Oval Office.

19. The Pledge of Allegiance Went Like This:

“I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Written by National Education Association committeeman Francis Bellamy in 1892, the original recitation was barely tampered with until 1923 (it was changed still further in 1954, when the phrase “Under God” was added).

20. Christmas Season Was Roughly One Week Long.

Consider the diary of one Mr. Llewellyn Barker. In 1890, his family didn’t start shopping for Christmas presents until December 19th and waited until the 24th to cut down a tree. In the days before mass-marketing and X-Mas jingles being played in early November, their approach was quite typical.

21. You Might Have Taken “Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People.”

The awesomely-named drug was heavily advertised in 82 countries & claimed to help cure any disease caused by “thin, impoverished blood” or “nervous disorders resulting from malnutrition."

22. You Wore a Lot of Mauve.

During the late 19th century, purple clothes—long associated with royalty thanks to the expensive dyes used in making them—became so widely-available that the 1890s have been called “The Mauve Decade.”

23. You Wanted to Play the Mandolin.

Just before the two countries went to war, roaming American bands found great success imitating Spanish music. Their most iconic weapon? The festive mandolin.

24. Happiness was a Steel Rolling Hoop.

The timeless game of “hoop rolling” could be challenging, but wooden hoops made it tougher still because they needed to be repeatedly hit with one’s stick in order to keep moving. Metal varieties, on the other hand, could be pushed along more easily.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise noted.

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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