How to Tell the Future With Snails, and 14 Other Pieces of Outmoded Advice

iStock.com/AlexRaths
iStock.com/AlexRaths

In the days before Google, people had few options for solving their most vexing practical and social problems. If you wanted to know how to make pickles, fix the Victrola, or write a letter to your boss, your choices were generally to ask someone or look it up in a book. As our Google searches may someday be to future historians, the advice manuals of yore often provide a fascinating treasure trove of information about how people once lived, the problems they encountered, and what they considered most important.

How to Skin a Lion, out this month from University of Chicago Press, collects some of the most interesting and unusual pieces of advice found in the archives of the British Library. Author Claire Cock-Starkey draws on Georgian manuscripts, Victorian manuals, and self-help guides from the early twentieth century to collect tidbits on subjects as diverse as medicine and mourning, hunting and homemaking. The book includes instructions for putting back a dislocated jaw, catching and preserving eels, or making turnip wine—should you ever feel the need to.

Much of the advice, says Cock-Starkey, shows how much more self-reliant we used to be: “You needed to know how to mend your own clothes, make your own cosmetics and smoke your own bacon." What's more, even the simplest tasks took a lot more time. As the author puts it, “If you wanted ice in your drink you couldn’t just open the fridge, someone had to harvest that ice from glacial lakes in North America, ship it across the ocean and transport it in huge chunks to your ice-house.” (The book includes a fascinating account of the “ice farms”—American lakes—that Europeans relied upon in the 19th century.)

The most surprising advice she encountered, she says, was an Englishman’s account of a method used in India for getting rid of fleas. He “recounted that the locals would either cover the floor of their house in straw then set it alight, or get a herd of cattle to run through the house in the hope that the fleas would jump aboard the marauding cows and exit [the] abode.” The first method, according to the Englishman, would probably result in the house burning down, while the second was unlikely to do any good at all.

On her blog and Twitter account, Cock-Starkey has been spotlighting some of the most obscure terms and ingredients she encountered (such as a “skep,” a traditional domed wooden bee hive, and a "cheesart," or cheese vat). She has also been trying out some of the recipes: an experiment in making mushroom ketchup did not turn out as well as hoped, although the lemon barley water was a relative hit. Extracts from some of the more notable pieces of advices included in How to Skin a Lion are included below:

1. How to cure a headache

To ease a man of the head ache, thus make his nose bleed: take seeds of red nettles and make them to a powder in a morter and blow a little of the same into his nose with a quill.

But if ye cannot get seeds of nettle put a whole of a herbe called milkfoyl or barbe into the nose and rub the nose outward softly; then it should bleed. But if it be winter and ye cannot get nettles, etc., and would glad ease the head ache, then take two sack bands and tye them, first, firmly about the legs around the knees, and this for the space of half a pater noster. Then lose it again and tye it again.

Do this the space of a quarter of an hour, then tye his arms about the elbow, likewise, thus shalt though draw the blood from his head. This must be done carefully lest his limbs become blue.

2.How to read the future—with snails

Close up of a snail on a leaf
iStock.com/marimo_3d

Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde (1887) suggests that the key to reading your future is to utilize the common or garden snail:

Another mode of divination for future fate in life is by snails. The young girls go out early before sunrise to trace the path of the snails in the clay, for always a letter is marked, and this is the initial of the true lover’s name. A black snail is very unlucky to meet first in the morning, for his trail would read death; but a white snail brings good fortune.

3. How to read moles

Young woman with a mole on her cheek
iStock.com/jwblinn

Nine Pennyworth of Wit for a Penny (1750) informed readers how to read their fortune by examining the positioning of their moles:

Moles in the face particularly, and those in other parts of the body are very significant as to good or bad fortune.

A mole on the left side of the forehead, denotes the party will get rich by tillage, building and planting.

A mole on the right side of the forehead, promises happy contentment of life, a loving state in matrimony, &c.

A mole on the middle of the forehead, denotes a person subject to sickness, and other afflictions.

A mole on the left side of the temple, promises loss and affliction to either sex in the first part of their age; but happiness by overcoming them in the end.

A mole on the eyebrow signifies speedy marriage and a good husband.

A mole on the left cheek, inclining towards the lower part of the ear, denotes loss in goods, and crosses by children; threatens a woman with death in child-bed.

A mole on the nose, foretells the birth of many children, and persons powerful in generation.

A mole on the right corner of the mouth, near the jaw, promises happy days to either sex; but on the left side, unlawful copulation, and much loss thereby.

A mole on the left shoulder denotes labour, travel and sorrow.

4. How to brush your hair

A young woman brushing her hair
iStock.com/kzenon

The Handbook of the Toilette (1839) includes the following advice on the proper method for brushing your hair:

The skin of the head must therefore be kept perfectly clean, and in a state of proper tone. To effect this, a brush should be used thrice a day if possible, which is strong, not too close, and will penetrate through the hair to the skin. This application of the brush, on rising in the morning, should last full half an hour; and if the hair belong to a lady, and be very thick and long, a quarter of an hour more should be devoted to brushing it, making it in all three quarters of an hour. On dressing for dinner, the brush should be applied to the head during five or six minutes, and during about ten minutes at night. It is often serviceable to rub into the hair in the morning, before the brush is applied, either hair-powder or bran—it is almost immaterial which, though I think the first preferable.

5. How to use leeches

Leeches have been used medicinally for thousands of years. Household Medicine and Surgery, Sick-room Management and Cookery for Invalids (1854) recommends the following method:

When leeches are applied to a part, it should be thoroughly freed from down or hair by shaving, and all dirt, liniments, &c. carefully and effectually cleaned away by washing. If the leech is hungry it will soon bite; but sometimes great difficulty is experienced in getting the animal to fasten. When this is the case, roll the leech in a little porter, or moisten the surface with a little blood or milk, or sugar or water. Leeches may be applied by holding them over the part with a piece of linen cloth or by the means of a glass.

However, caution is advised if using the leeches in sensitive areas: “When applied to the gums, care should be taken to use a leech glass, as they are apt to creep down the patient’s throat; a large swan’s quill will answer the purpose of a leech glass."

To remove a leech, the following is recommended: “When leeches are gorged, they will drop off themselves; never tear them off from a person, but just dip the tip of a moistened finger in some salt and touch them with that.”

6. How a lady should conduct herself in polite society

Two women in medieval dresses gossip on the sofa
iStock.com/darkbird77

Some advice is timeless, as evident in some of the tips provided by Etiquette for the Ladies—Eighty Maxims on Dress, Manners and Accomplishments (1838):

If you are a married lady, and have children, never insist on showing off their precocity before company. In nine cases out of ten, however much people may affect to applaud, depend upon it they look upon such exhibitions as a bore.

Never allow your pursuit after fashion to be so eager, as to make people suppose that you have nothing better than the mode of your dress to recommend you.

Perfumes are not altogether to be forbidden; but they should never be so strong or in such quantity, as to excite attention. When they are used too profusely, people are apt to suppose that you have some particular reason for their use, beyond the mere desire to gratify your olfactory organ.

Yet other nuggets of advice have not stood the test of time so well:

It is not considered proper for ladies to wear gloves during dinner. To appear in public without them—to sit in church or in a place of public amusement destitute of these appendages, is decidedly vulgar. Some gentlemen insist on stripping off their gloves before shaking hands;—a piece of barbarity, of which no lady will be guilty.

Scarcely any thing is so repulsive in a lady—so utterly plebeian, as speaking in a loud harsh voice. As in Shakespeare’s time, a ‘small’ voice is still considered "an excellent thing in a woman."

7. How to keep fresh breath

Facial portrait of a woman laughing
iStock.com/AntonioGuillem

The horrors of bad breath are described in The Handbook of the Toilette (1839):

If ladies were conscious of the effect produced upon the breath by late hours, heating diet, hot and crowded rooms, and the several other enemies to the constitution necessarily encountered by a life of dissipation, they would be horror-stricken at finding that they render themselves offensive and disgusting to those whom it is their duty as well as their best policy to please. The same remark applies to men under similar circumstances, joined perhaps to a habit of taking wine and ardent spirits, if not to excess, at least in greater quantity than is requisite. In the morning the body is feverish, the tongue loaded with a white crust; vapors rise from the stomach, and the breath is foul. And when this mode of life is continued, in addition to the loss of the bloom given by health, the breath is most offensively impregnated with fetid exhalations from the stomach.

The most effective sweetener of the breath is health of body … but where vapours and fermentation of the stomach exist, the only substances which can destroy the fetid exhalations, are the disinfecting chlorides. As the solution of chloride of lime is too harsh, the concentrated solution of the chloride of soda … should alone be admitted at the toilette. From six to ten drops of this substance in a wineglassful of pure spring water, taken immediately after the operations of the morning are completed, will instantly sweeten the breath, by disinfecting the stomach, which, far from being injured, will be benefitted by the medicine.

8. How to refuse a proposal of marriage

A woman being offered an engagement ring
iStock.com/vadimguzhva

The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony (1865) recommends:

When a lady rejects the proposal of a gentleman, her behavior should be characterized by the most delicate feeling towards one who, in offering her his hand, has proved his desire to confer upon her, by this implied preference for her above all other women, the greatest honor it is in his power to offer. Therefore, if she have no love for him, she ought at least to evince a tender regard for his feelings.

No woman of proper feeling would regard her rejection of an offer of marriage from a worthy man as a matter of triumph: her feeling on such an occasion should be one of regretful sympathy with him for the pain she is unavoidably compelled to inflict. Nor should such a rejection be unaccompanied with some degree of self-examination on her part, to discern whether any lightness of demeanor or tendency to flirtation may have given rise to a false hope of her favoring his suit. At all events, no lady should ever treat a man who has so honored her with the slightest disrespect or frivolous disregards, nor ever unfeelingly parade a more favored suitor before one whom she has refused.

9. How to address a Maharajah

The etiquette necessary for socializing with the local gentry in colonial India frequently flummoxed the English, who often consulted guides such as Hints on Indian Etiquette Specially Designed for the Use of Europeans by Iftikhar Husain (1911). Husain advised that the following form should be followed when writing a letter to a Maharajah or person of a similar rank:

“You of exalted rank, lofty position and of noble birth, may you have increased graciousness.”

And he advises that one might sign off with the following:

“Your obedient servant”

or

“The lowest of the low”

or

“Humble as dust”

The Anglo-Hindoostanee Hand-book; or, Stranger’s Self-interpreter and Guide to Colloquial and General Intercourse with the Natives of India (1850) offered some counsel on the etiquette of visiting:

Natives of high rank—hindoo or moohummudun, when receiving visits of ceremony usually retain their seats, unless the visitors be their equals, or otherwise European officials of high rank in the service of the British government, in which event the parties visited rise and advance a certain distance according to the degree of ceremonious respect that the rank of the visitor may claim or circumstances suggest.

The visitor must also remember to leave in the appropriate style, making sure they take careful note of the elaborate hints that indicate that they have overstayed their welcome:

Immediately ere parting the parties visited usually present to each of their guests Utr-pan (a cud of betel-pepper leaves), and then, with bottles, sprinkle rose-water over their handkerchiefs or clothes, which ceremony if performed ere the visitors themselves be prepared to go, is the usual polite intimation that their departure is desired.

10. How to make a love charm

The Book of Charms and Ceremonies: whereby all may have the opportunity of obtaining any object they desire by "Merlin" (1892) offers the following instructions on how to make a love charm.

Agrippa says that the hair off the belly of a goat, tied into knots and concealed in the roof of the house of the beloved, will produce furious love, whereby the maiden will not be able to withstand the entreaties of her lover, but will be so enchanted with him that marriage will soon take place.

11. How to skin a lion

A lion in grass
iStock.com/MaggyMeyer

Should the hunter also wish to preserve the lion’s skull as a trophy, Charles McCann advises the following method in his 1927 A Shikari’s Pocket-book:

Cut off all the removable flesh. Take out the brain through the orifice at the back by pushing a stick into it and stirring them up, then shaking out the resultant porridge. Pouring hot water into the brain-case and shaking it out again will help greatly to bring away the contents. Do not give this job to an ignorant native to do, unless he has done it before correctly in your presence. If not he will inevitably chop off the back of the skull with an axe in order to get at the brains. Wash the skull and hang it up to dry, after tying the lower jawbone firmly on to it.

12. How to prevent bad luck

A pitcher and glass of milk in front of a sunny spring field
iStock.com/IakovKalinin

Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde (1887) is full of advice on how to protect the family from those most pesky of pests, witches, and fairies:

The witches, however, make great efforts to steal the milk on May morning, and if they succeed, the luck passes from the family, and the milk and butter for the whole year will belong to the fairies. The best preventative is to scatter primroses on the threshold; and the old women tie bunches of primroses to the cows’ tails, for the evil spirits cannot touch anything guarded by these flowers, if they are plucked before sunrise, not else. A piece of iron, also, made red hot, is placed upon the hearth; any old iron will do, the older the better, and branches of whitethorn and mountain ash are wreathed around the doorway for luck. The mountain ash has very great and mysterious qualities. If a branch of it be woven into the roof, that house is safe from fire for a year at least, and if a branch of it is mixed with the timber of a boat, no storm will upset it, and no man in it be drowned for twelvemonth.

13. How to get presented at Court

Royal Courts of Justice
iStock.com/tupungato

Getting presented at Court was vital for any young lady wishing to become part of the English social scene. The methods have changed over the years, but Complete Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen: A Guide to the Rules and Observances of Good Society (1900) describes the Victorian method, in which girls had the opportunity to be presented to Queen Victoria four times a season (twice before Easter and twice after).

When a girl is about to be presented at Court she procures a large blank card, and write legibly upon it her own name and that of the lady who presents her, thus: ‘Mrs. Percy, presented by Lady White’ … This card is left at the Lord Chamberlain’s office in St. James’s Palace at least two clear days before the drawing-room, and is accompanied by a note from the lady who is to present her … The names are submitted for Her Majesty’s approval, and on sending to the office two days later the lady receives two ‘presentation’ or pink cards, on which she write legibly the same words as those on the former card. These cards she takes with her to the palace, one being left with the page-in-waiting at the top of the grand staircase; the other is taken by an official at the door of the presence-chamber, and passed to the Lord Chamberlain, who reads the name to Her Majesty.

The doors of the Palace are opened at two o’clock, and the Queen enters the throne room at three. Ladies carry their trains, folded, over the arm until they reach the door of the picture gallery, where it is removed from its wearer’s arm by the attendants in waiting, and the lady passes across the gallery with it flowing at full length to the door of the throne-room.

If the lady is to be presented she must have her right hand ungloved, and as she bends before the Queen she extends her hands palm downwards; the Queen places her hand upon it, the lady touches the royal hand with her lips, and the presentation is over; the lady passes on, stepping backwards, curtseying to those members of the royal family present.

A lady requires to be re-presented when any change occurs in her social status. For instance, she must be again presented on her marriage, if she has been presented before, also should her husband succeed to any higher title. If she fails in this, she has no further right to appear at Court.

14. How to dress like a gentleman

A stylish man reading a newspaper at an outdoor cafe
iStock.com/dor-riss

Some tips become quickly outmoded, but these tips for the stylish man from All About Etiquette: or The Manners of Polite Society for Ladies, Gentlemen, and Families (1879) are timeless:

If you wear your beard, wear it in moderation—extremes are always vulgar. Avoid all fantastic arrangements of the hair, either turning it under in a roll, or allowing it to straggle in long and often seemingly ‘uncombed and unkempt’ masses over the coat collar, or having it cropped so close as to give the wearer the appearance of a sporting character.

For appendages, eschew all flash stones; nothing is more unexceptionable for sleeve-buttons and the fastenings of the front of a shirt than fine gold, fashioned in some simple form, sufficiently massive to indicate use and durability, and skillfully and handsomely wrought, if ornamented at all. A gentleman carries a watch for convenience and secures it safely upon his person, wearing it with no useless ornament paraded to the eye. It is like his pencil and purse, good of its kind, and, if he can afford it, handsome, but it is never flashy. The fashion for wearing signet rings is not so general, perhaps, as it was a little while since, but it still retains a place among the minutiae of the present subject. Here, again, the same rules of good taste apply as to other ornaments. When worn at all, everything of this sort should be most unexceptionally and unmistakably tasteful and genuine.

15. How to use the English method of fortune-telling by cards

Playing cards
iStock.com/Zheka-Boss

A Handbook of Cartomancy: Fortune-telling and Occult Divination by Grand Orient (1889) reveals the secrets of fortune telling with cards. The suit of diamonds was said to have the following meanings:

Ace of Diamonds – A letter – from whom, and what about, must be judged from neighbouring cards.

King of Diamonds – A fair man, hot tempered, obstinate and revengeful.

Queen of Diamonds – A fair woman, fond of company and a coquette.

Knave of Diamonds – A near relation who considers only his interests. Also a fair person’s thoughts.

Ten of Diamonds – Money.

Nine of Diamonds – Shews that a person is fond of roving.

Eight of Diamonds – A marriage late in life.

Seven of Diamonds – Satire, evil speaking.

Six of Diamonds – Early marriage and widowhood.

Five of Diamonds – Unexpected news.

Four of Diamonds – Trouble arising from unfaithful friends; also a betrayed secret.

Three of Diamonds – Quarrels, law-suits, and domestic disagreements.

Two of diamonds – An engagement against the wishes of friends.

8 Tips for Interviewing a Serial Killer, According to Famed FBI Profiler John Douglas

iStock/Kritchanut
iStock/Kritchanut

Over the course of his career, former FBI agent and behavioral analyst John E. Douglas has interviewed criminals ranging from repeated hijacker Garrett Trapnell and cult leader Charles Manson to serial killers Edmund Kemper (a.k.a. the Co-Ed Killer) and Dennis Rader (a.k.a. B.T.K.). In his new book, The Killer Across the Table, Douglas takes readers into the room as he interviews four very different offenders.

In these conversations, “I'm trying to gain [their] trust [to get] information that I'll be able to apply to current cases,” Douglas tells Mental Floss. Here, he outlines how he prepares for an interview with a killer to figure out what makes them tick.

1. Never go into an interview cold.

“Preparation is the number one factor for a successful interview” of this kind, Douglas says. “Before I go in to do an interview, [I] go back into the files and fully look at the case that got him or her incarcerated to begin with. Which means looking at the police reports, the preliminary protocol that the medical examiner did regarding the autopsy, autopsy photographs, and then looking in the corrections reports as well. You want to be totally armed with the case when you go in.”

2. Memorize everything—don’t use notes or a tape recorder.

Early on in his interviews with killers, Douglas used a tape recorder, which he now says was a mistake. “You're dealing with very paranoid individuals. They don't trust you, they don't trust the [corrections] system,” he says. “If my head is down, [they’ll ask], ‘What, are you taping this? Why are you writing these notes down?’” Memorizing the case is key—when he goes in, he won’t have notes or a tape recorder: “It's going to be key [for] me to maintain some eye contact with them.”

3. Make sure the environment is right.

The key in these interviews, Douglas says, is to make the environment feel open so that the killer feels comfortable and like he’s in control. “When you go into a prison, sometimes you're forced to deal with what you've got,” he says. “But if I have time, I try to [make arrangements] depending on the personality.”

Douglas prefers to conduct his interviews at night, relying only on low table lights to create a soothing, stress-free atmosphere. Douglas will even think about seating arrangements. “If I'm dealing with a real paranoid type of individual, I need to put this person near a window—if there's a window—so that he can look out the window and psychologically escape, or I may have him face a door,” he says. Both Charles Manson and Richard Speck chose to sit on the backs of their chairs so they could look down on him. Douglas’s attitude is: “You hate me. I know you hate me, but go ahead and do it. I'm just trying to get a little bit of information now.”

4. Don’t rely on what a killer tells you.

Douglas never takes a killer’s word for anything, which is why memorizing the case is so important. Typically, he knows the answers to the questions he’s asking, and it allows him to call out the offender if he or she lies. “If you don't look deeply into the material, you don't know who in the heck you're talking to,” Douglas says. “You're talking to somebody who's pulling the wool over your eyes … If [an interviewer relies] on self-reporting, they're going to be filled with a lot of lies coming from the person they're interviewing.”

5. Know that this is not an interrogation.

Once he knows who’s committed a crime, Douglas says, his main goal is to find out what motivated them. The best way to get that out of them is to ask his questions “in a very relaxed kind of a format, making the subject—even if it's a guy like Manson or some of the worst killers you'd ever want to meet—feel real comfortable and feel at the same time that they are controlling me during the interview.”

What Douglas ultimately tries to do is have a conversation with the offender. “That means if they're asking me a lot of questions about myself, about maybe my family, my job, and I'm pretty honest with them,” he says. “They will trust me and open up to me as long as they know that I know the case, backwards and forwards. If they start fudging on the case trying to send me down the wrong path, I will confront them, but not in mean [way]. I'll laugh and say, ‘Look, come on. I know what you did. What are you doing here?’ That’s how you gain their trust.”

6. Be mindful of your body language—and the actual language you’re using.

When he’s in an interview, Douglas isn’t sitting there with his arms crossed, looking uncomfortable. “The body language should be just relaxed, not a defensive kind of posture,” he says. “[It should be] very comfortable—like on a date kind of thing.”

Douglas also avoids words like killing, murder, and rape, and, as awful as it might sound, avoids placing the blame on the killer. “I'm trying to get him to talk so we're going to project the blame," Douglas says. "[Some killers] use this projection, never accepting responsibility, not admitting that it was free will, that they had the ability to make choices and they made the wrong choices in their lives, even though they may have come from a very, very bad background.”

This kind of approach is what helped Douglas gain insights from Ed Kemper. When Douglas asked how Kemper—who was 6 feet, 9 inches tall and 300 pounds—would get young women in his car, Kemper revealed that he would pull up next to them and look at his watch, which would give them the impression that he had somewhere to be. “I’ll go with this guy. He’s got an appointment, nothing’s going to happen to me,” Douglas says. “Just a little thing like that was real helpful to me.”

7. Play it cool, no matter what happens.

Being confrontational is no way to get a killer to open up. “In an interview, whether it's a serial killer or any type of violent offender, I'll never challenge them or be negative toward them,” Douglas says. “I'll never do anything like that. If I feel that they're not being truthful, I'll bring it to their attention. But I’m on a fact-finding mission. There are several shows on television right now where celebrity types are going into prisons doing interviews. They get in the guy's face and they call him a liar. [So] the guy, what does he want to do? ‘I want to go back to my cell. Screw you. I'm out of here.’ And you can't hold him there—he's got to go back. So, you never do anything like that.”

8. Don’t be afraid to feign empathy.

Sometimes getting what you need out of an offender means fudging the truth. Sometimes Douglas will tell the killer that he’s earning points with the warden by doing the interview. “There's still always this glimmer of hope that they'll get out of prison one day, even if they're in there for multiple murders,” he says. “The warden doesn't give a damn about him, but I'm just telling them this to try to get him to speak up.”

Sometimes Douglas will play to his subject's pride and narcissism. “They want to be the big daddy,” he says. "'But I'm the main guy, right? You're doing this research and you guys got the real McCoy here. I'm the best and the worst of the worst.'" And sometimes, he feigns empathy—all with the goal of finding out information that will help prevent and solve other crimes.

"Let the person feel they are in control of the interview,” Douglas says. "Be open with yourself. Give them information about yourself to this person and it should go well."

14 Secrets of McDonald's Employees

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

While there’s virtually no end to the number of fast food options for people seeking a quick meal, none have entered the public consciousness quite like McDonald’s. Originally a barbecue shop with a limited menu when it was founded by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in the 1940s, the Golden Arches have grown into a franchised behemoth with more than 36,000 locations worldwide.

Staffing those busy kitchens and registers are nearly 2 million McDonald's employees. To get a better idea of what many consider to be the most popular entry-level job in the nation—staff members on the floor make an average of $9 an hour—we asked several workers to share details of their experiences with errant ice cream machines, drive-through protocols, and special requests. Here’s what they had to say about life behind the counter.

1. McDonald's employees can't always deliver fast food all that fast.

While McDonald’s and other fast-service restaurants pride themselves on getting customers on their way, some menu items just don’t lend themselves to record service times. According to Bob, an assistant store manager at a McDonald’s in the Midwest, pies take an average of 10 to 12 minutes to prepare; grilled chicken, 10 minutes; and biscuits for Egg McMuffins, eight to 10 minutes. In the mood for something light, like a grilled chicken and salad? That will take a few minutes, too. Bob says salads are pre-made with lettuce but still need to have chicken and other ingredients added.

The labor-intensive nature of assembling ingredients is part of why the chain has more recently shied away from menu items with too many ingredients. “We are trained to go as fast down the line as we can, and if we have to stop to make something that has 10 ingredients, it tends to slow things down,” Bob tells Mental Floss. “Corporate has realized this and has taken many of these items off in recent years, [like] McWraps, Clubhouse, more recently the Smokehouse and mushroom and Swiss and moved to items that can go a lot quicker.”

2. McDonald's workers wish you’d stop asking for fries without salt.

A serving of McDonald's French fries is pictured
Joerg Koch, AFP/Getty Images

A common “trick” for customers seeking fresh fries is to ask for them without salt. The idea is that fries that have been under a heating lamp will already be salted and that the employee in the kitchen will need to put down a new batch in the fryer. This does work, but customers can also just ask for fresh fries. It’s less of a hassle and may even save employees some discomfort.

“People can ask for fresh fries and it's actually way easier to do fresh fries rather than no-salt fries,” Andy, an employee who’s worked at three different McDonald’s locations in the Midwest, tells Mental Floss. “For those, we have to pour the fries onto a tray from the fryer so they don't come in contact with salt. It can get awkward sometimes getting everything into position, especially if you have a lot of people working in close proximity and it's busy, so I've had some scalded hands a couple of times trying to get fries out in a timely way.”

3. McDonald's workers have to pay careful attention to the order of ingredients.

McDonald’s is pretty specific about how their burgers and other items are supposed to be assembled, with layers—meat, cheese, sauce—arranged in a specific order. If they mess it up, customers can notice. “In some cases it has a big impact,” Sam, a department manager and nine-year veteran of the restaurant in Canada, tells Mental Floss. “Like placing the cheese between the patties with a McDouble. If they don’t put the cheese between the patties, the cheese won’t melt.”

4. There’s a reason McDonald’s employees ask you to park at the drive-through.

A McDonald's customer pulls up to the drive-thru window
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

After ordering at the drive-through window, you may be slightly puzzled when a cashier asks you to pull into one of the designated parking spots. That’s because employees are measured on how quickly they process cars at the drive-through. If your order is taking a long time to prepare, they’ll take you out of the queue to keep the line moving. “My store has sensors in the drive-through that actually tell us exactly how long you are at each spot in the drive-through,” Bob says. “We get measured based on something we call OEPE. Order end, present end. [That measures] from the second that your tires move from the speaker until your back tires pass over the sensor on the present window. My store is expected to be under two minutes.” If an order will take longer than that, you'll be asked to park.

5. The McDonald's drive-through employees can hear everything going on in your car.

While the quality of the speakers at a drive-through window can vary, it’s best to assume employees inside the restaurant can hear everything happening in your car even before you place an order. “The speaker is activated by the metal in the car, so as soon as you drive up, the speaker turns on in our headset,” Andy says. “We can hear everything, and I do mean everything. Loud music, yelling at your kids to shut up, etc.”

6. The employees at McDonald’s like their regulars.

Customers eat inside of a McDonald's with an order of French fries in the foreground
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

With hot coffee, plenty of tables, Wi-Fi, and newspapers, McDonald’s can wind up being a popular hang-out for repeat customers. “[We have] a ton of regulars who come into my store,” Bob says. “I'd say at least 75 percent of my daily customers know us all by name and we know them all, too. It makes it nice and makes the service feel a lot more personal when a customer can walk into my location, and we can look them in the eye and say, ‘Hey Mark! Getting the usual today?’ and we've already started making his coffee exactly how he takes it.”

7. McDonald’s staff get prank calls.

Unless they’re trying to cater an event, customers usually don’t have any reason to phone a McDonald’s. When the phone rings, employees brace themselves. In addition to sometimes being asked a legitimate question like when the store closes, Sam says his store gets a lot of prank calls. “Sometimes it’s people asking about directions to Wendy’s,” he says. “A lot of inappropriate ones. Most are pretty lame.”

8. For a McDonald’s worker, the ice cream machine is like automated stress.

A McDonald's customer is handed an ice cream cone at the drive-thru window
iStock/jax10289

The internet is full of stories of frustrated McDonald’s customers who believe the chain’s ice cream machines are always inoperable. That’s not entirely true, but the machine does experience a lot of downtime. According to Bob, that’s because it’s always in need of maintenance. “The thing is, it is a very sensitive machine,” he says. “It's not made to be making 50 cones in a row, or 10 shakes at a time. It takes time for the mix to freeze to a proper consistency. It also requires a daily heat mode, [where] the whole machine heats up to about 130 degrees or so. The heat mode typically takes about four hours to complete, so you try to schedule it during the slowest time.” Stores also need to take the machine entirely apart every one to two weeks to clean it thoroughly.

Bob adds that the machine’s O-rings can crack or tear, rendering the unit inoperable. Seasoned workers can tell if a unit is faulty by the consistency of the shakes or ice cream coming out, and sometimes by the noises it makes.

9. McDonald's employees don't mind if you order a grilled cheese.

Contrary to rumor, there’s no “secret menu” at McDonald’s. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes snag something not listed on the board. Andy says a lot of people order a grilled cheese sandwich. “I've made many a grilled cheese before,” he says. But it’s not without consequences. “Sometimes it can get a bit risky doing it because the bun toaster wasn't designed to make grilled cheeses so sometimes you get some burnt buns or cheese or the cheese sticks inside and it slows down the other buns from getting out on time so that causes more burnt buns.”

Another common request is for customers to ask for a McDouble dressed as a Big Mac, with added Big Mac sauce and shredded lettuce. “I think [it’s] a way more practical way to eat a Big Mac since there's less bun in the way, and it's also way cheaper even if you do get charged for Mac sauce.”

10. McDonald’s workers recommend always checking your order.

A McDonald's employee serves an order
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Nothing stings worse than the revelation that an employee has forgotten part of your food order. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because the employees are being lazy or inattentive. According to Bob, it’s simply due to the volume of customers a typical location has to process in a given day. “We are human,” he says. “Mistakes do happen. We always feel terrible when they do but when we serve 1000-plus people a day, it's bound to happen.”

Bob recommends checking your bag before leaving the restaurant and not taking it personally if there’s an issue. “Be nice to us if you have a problem,” he says. “It's a huge difference between coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, I seem to be missing a fry from my bag,’ and ‘You bastards didn't give me my fries!’” If you want to check your bag at the drive-through, though, he recommends trying to pull ahead so cars behind you can move forward.

11. McDonald's employees don't recommend the grilled chicken.

If a menu item isn’t all that popular, it can wind up experiencing a low rate of turnover. Of all the food at McDonald’s, the most neglected might be the grilled chicken. Because it doesn't move quickly, workers find that it can turn unappetizing in a hurry. “That stuff has a supposed shelf life of 60 minutes in the heated cabinet, but it dries out so quickly that even if it's within an acceptable time frame, it looks like burnt rubber, and probably tastes like it, too,” Andy says.

12. Golden Arches employees aren’t crazy about Happy Meal collectors.

A McDonald's Happy Meal is pictured
David Morris, Getty Images

Happy Meals are boxed combos that come with a toy inside. Usually, it’s tied into some kind of movie promotion. That means both Happy Meal collectors and fans of a given entertainment property can swarm stores looking for the product. “The biggest pain involving the Happy Meals is the people who collect them,” Bob says. “I personally hate trying to dig through the toys looking for one specific one. We usually only have one to three toys on hand. It's especially a pain in the butt during big toys events such as the Avengers one we just had. There was like 26 different toys, and some customers get really mad when you don't have the one that they want.”

And no, employees don’t usually take home leftover toys. They’ve saved for future use as a substitute in case a location runs out of toys for their current promotion.

13. McDonald's employees can’t mess with Monopoly.

The McDonald’s Monopoly promotion has been a perennial success for the chain, with game pieces affixed to drink cups and fry containers. But if you think employees spend their spare time peeling the pieces off cups looking for prizes, think again. Following a widely-publicized scandal in 2000 that saw an employee of the company that printed the pieces intercepting them for his own gain, the chain has pretty strict rules about the promotion. “Monopoly pieces and things like them get sent back to corporate,” Bob says. “We aren't allowed to touch them, open them, or redeem them as employees.”

14. One McDonald's worker admits there have been sign mishaps.

A McDonald's sign is pictured
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Many McDonald’s locations sport signs under the arches advertising specials or promotions. Some are analog, with letters that need to be mounted and replaced. Others have LED screens. Either way, there can be mistakes. “I've never seen anyone mess around with the letters,” Andy says. “But I do remember one time we were serving the Angus Burgers and the ‘G’ fell off of the word ‘Angus.’ Good times.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER