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11 Female Health Products from the 1908 Sears Catalog

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A woman’s health, hygiene, and beauty routines have never been simple. Below, courtesy of Sears, Roebuck’s 1908 catalog, we offer an extremely rare glimpse into how ladies of the early 20th century dealt with some of their most private physical issues.

1. English Breast Pump

The catalog never misses a chance to boast the foreign origin of a product, as if having been imported added respectability and quality to an object. Even when it comes to breast pumps. A woman would most likely purchase a breast pump in 1908 if her child could not suckle naturally, or if she had inverted nipples and intended to pop them out with the vacuum force of the suction bulb. Still, they were a huge improvement over the earliest patented breast pumps, which were nearly indistinguishable from tiny cow milkers.

2. Nursing Corset

If you were fortunate enough to have a healthy baby and properly pointed nipples for suckling, you could nurse your own child. Not as women of today may, of course, nodding off for a precious six minute nap on the couch with a large milk stained t-shirt shoved haphazardly above their baby’s head. No, nursing did not excuse you from propriety. This nursing corset bears all the same attributes and boning of regular corsets, except that the fabric covering the breast could be unbuttoned.

3. Toilette Liquid Depilatory for Removing Superfluous Hair

Take comfort that any reference to “a woman’s toilet” in literature this old means “beauty routine.” There are no ladies’ razors in the 1908 catalog, only this liquid depilatory offered for feminine hair removal. Specifically for the “neck, face, and arms,” as these are the only parts of a woman that anyone would ever see. (Judging by the negligee section, this would have included her husband). This depilatory doesn’t list its ingredients, but most depilatories of the day were either made from rhumsa, an arsenic derivative, or from various sulphides. Both chemicals could be counted on to dissolve the keratin protein in hair, allowing it to be wiped off. Keratin is also a large part of what your skin is made up of. Which is why this product “specifically specifies” that the time limit of the application is observed, lest “irritation” occur. The price of beauty could be caustic.

4. Hair Growing Fountain Comb

Of course, the places on your body that you want to have hair will often present you with all sorts of unruly problems. This device, a squeeze bulb feeding a hollow comb, was meant to help with that. With the bobbed hair of the 1920s still 12 years and a World War away, women’s hair was long, seldom washed, and brushed with thick and soft bristles that didn’t penetrate to the scalp. The Fountain Comb did go directly to the scalp, where you could then apply tonics and perfumes and miraculous hair thickening potions without having to soak your whole head. It also allowed bottle blondes and ladies with graying hair to keep their secrets buried deep at the roots.

5. Ruby Salve and Eyebrow Pencil

What you see above is just about the extent of the Sears line of cosmetics in 1908. In addition to the rouge (used for both lips and cheeks) and the eyebrow pencil, they offered a smattering of stage make-up, and a very nice selection of face powders. Of all these products, only face powder—which was usually just perfumed talc—would be acceptable to lay next to a hairbrush or mirror at a lady’s vanity table. Make-up would be hidden down with the menstrual belt and douches. If a woman chose to artificially enhance her God-given features, people would think her vain and cheap. It isn’t accidental that both products assure buyers that they are of such high quality that their presence “can never be detected.”

6. Bust Supporters and Enhancers

Speaking of enhancement—a perfectly shaped bosom was highly desirable, despite the efforts the fashions of the era took to obscure it. Enter the bust form. They were made of wire; no padding was needed because they’d be smushed under the corset, where only metal or natural mammary were strong enough to protrude. They were there to fill in the gaps, and provide a metal structure to imitate what nature was not kind enough to provide on her own. Above is a bust supporter, one of many fore-runners to the modern bra. It was worn in addition to a corset, and promised to make up for any “deficiency of development.” It shifted the weight of the breasts to the shoulders and away from the shirtwaist (blouse). This provided the wearer “coolness and comfort in warm weather.”

7. Form Reducer Corset

But what if deficiencies of development aren’t your problem? What if you are too bountiful? Then you are in luck, because Sears provided Form Reducing Corsets. The immediate irony is that the job of all corsets, if over-tightened, was to reduce a woman’s form. But the Sahlin Form Reducer goes one better. Actually 12 better, as that is the number of individual adjustments the corset offered around the waist, hip and rump area. One interesting thing to note about this corset for the larger lady is the measurements it is available in. The largest size offered is made to fit a woman with a bust measurement (today’s bra measurement) of 40, meaning even the stoutest ladies of 1908 hovered around the lower end of modern plus sizing.

8. Hip Pad and Bustle

The turn of the century was the age of Camille Clifford and The Gibson Girl, who bookended her impossibly small waist with wide blousy hair and a fully rounded bottom. But seldom does nature provide those excruciating proportions all at once. A small waisted woman would often need to use a bustle to pad out her figure. These were modest bustles compared to earlier incarnations, thanks to a trend toward straighter, closer fitting skirts.

9. Ladies Drawers

Drawers got their name because they were underpants you could “draw” up or down. This was an advancement over pantalets that tied at the waist and covered each leg separately without connecting in the crotch. In fact most female underwear in the 19th century was crotchless, for practical (chamber pot) related reasons. Here in 1908, you see the developing option of purchasing your drawers “open” or “closed.”

10. Hygienic Sanitary Protector and Antiseptic Sanitary Towels

But if your underwear had no crotch, what would you do when you came upon your monthly unwellness? Be grateful that the modern era provided you with sanitary belts, which is much better than what your grandmothers had to work with (homemade menstrual belts, if they were lucky). No crotch required—these belts tied around your waist and suspended their own rubber pocketed crotches, in which you would place your “sanitary towel.” Or, if need be, “cotton or cheesecloth.”

An interesting issue of class played out through how a woman used her menstrual rags. Women who could afford it disposed of their soiled towels in the outhouse. Women who literally could not afford to throw that much money down the toilet had to wash, dry, and reuse the cloths. A difficult task in an era where menstruation was concealed at all costs from all people, even your own household and family. If you caught a peek at unmistakably stained cloth being hung to dry inside a home (never in public view), you could make an easy estimate of the family’s fortunes.

11. Birth Control (Sponges and Syringes)

In 1908, it was illegal to distribute information about birth control through the mail. It was certainly illegal to sell any sort of prophylactics. And you can be sure the Sears catalog does neither. They simply offer an array of hygiene products to women. Vaginal douches, which were referred to as “syringes,” consisted of a water bottle, hose, and curved vaginal nozzle. They were vaguely recommended in the catalog for good health. Some companies, such as Lysol, advertised that their product, when used as a douche, would guarantee the death of germs (or any other foreign invaders in your body, perhaps even ones that rhyme with “germ”). Sponges are sold even more obliquely, never specifying exactly why a woman might need a “Ladies Superfine Cup Shaped Sponge” (internal sponges were seldom used for menstrual control; being too small and porous to block any more than a trickle of liquid). Sears simply provided the products. How you used them was your business.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]