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10 Questionable Grooming Products from the 19th Century

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The process of making oneself presentable in the 19th century wasn't always pretty. Here are some of the more questionable ingredients people turned to in an effort to look (and smell) better.


It wasn’t until 1780 that a man named William Addis invented the first mass-produced toothbrush, and it took a century before the tool really caught on in the United States. Before then, toothbrushing practices varied alarmingly: Pierre Fauchaud, known as the father of modern dentistry, was a proponent of the theory that rising with one's own urine can cure a toothache. (His theories would strongly influence dentistry for the next hundred years.) He wasn't completely nuts—pee is rich in ammonia, which is a base, and can thus neutralize the acid that tooth-decaying bacteria produce. (In the 19th century, some working class families unable to afford soap used it to clean dirty clothes.) The urine-drinkers were a minority, though. Many 19th century Americans got rid of their morning breath by using twigs and table salt


If you can't afford fancy tooth powder ingredients such as borax and charcoal, there's always leftover carbs. Writing in 1860's The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness, Florence Hartley recommends whipping up "A Cheap But Good Tooth-Powder." To make your own, "Cut a slice of bread as thick as may be, into squares, and burn in the fire until it becomes charcoal, after which pound in a mortar, and sift through a fine muslin; it is then ready for use."


Clean teeth might not have been a priority 150 years ago, but maintaining a fancy mustache was of the utmost importance. No one slid in a retainer before going to bed, but countless Victorian men strapped wood frames to their faces at night in order to keep their mustaches in shape. (For military men, 'staches weren't just a passing fad: From 1860 to 1916, the British Army actually required its soldiers to sport upper lip fuzz.)


Today, we generally accept that beauty involves at least a little bit of pain. But back in the 1800s, it involved poison, too. Arsenic tablets were commonly used to treat acne in 1890s America. Fortunately, the recommended dosage wasn't generally potent enough to do actual harm; one 1901 tome suggests ingesting a pill of one hundredth of a grain of arsenic sulfide—which on its own is less toxic than other forms of arsenic—every two hours. (That only amounts to approximately .004 grams of arsenic sulfide per day. No big deal, right?)


The Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion, published in 1834, features a section on homemade depilatories with recipes listed in order of their potency. For those who hadn't had luck with some light acid on a hair pencil, the manual offers up this option:

"Take Gum of ivy, one ounce,
Ants' eggs
Gum arabic
Orpiment (of each one drachm)

Reduce these into a fine powder, and make it up into a liniment, with a sufficient quantity of vinegar. In pounding the materials, great precaution must be taken that the dust of the orpiment, which is a preparation of arsenic, be not inhaled."

Still seeing fuzz? The author has you covered with even stronger recipes involving orpiment and quicklime. Yikes.


The Toilette also offers up plenty of suggestions for eliminating the dreaded scalp "scurf," and for promoting overall hair health.

"The substances in most general use at the present day, and whose virtues are most highly extolled for the restoration and improvement of the hair, are, bear's grease, beef marrow, olive oil, oil of almonds both sweet and bitter: oil of nuts, of camomile, and of laurel; goose grease, fox grease, fresh butter, and burnt butter, bees burnt, and pounded in oil of roses; with various other pomades and high-sounding preparations."

Readers were cautioned against one dangerous, newfangled trend in the care and maintenance of hair:

"The practice, which of late years appears to have gained ground, of washing the head with water, either warm or cold, requires considerable judgment, as from it not unfrequently [sic] result head-ache, ear-ache, tooth-ache, and complaints of the eyes."


The widespread desire among Victorian women for almost translucent skin led to the development of a product for which there is no modern equivalent: The freckle remover. Homemade freckle-remover recipes were common in 19th-century beauty books; one treatment, from 1891, suggested that the freckle-afflicted "scrape horseradish into a cup of cold sour milk; let it stand twelve hours; strain, and apply two or three times a day." For those truly desperate to rid themselves of freckles, some experts suggested hydrochloric acid and (on rare occasions) mercury compounds.


To make their eyes appear bigger and brighter, some Victorian women dilated their pupils by applying drops of belladonna—better known as deadly nightshade. Not surprisingly, there were some downsides to the regimen. Namely, blindness. 


Spermaceti, a waxy substance found in the cranial cavity of the sperm whale, was a 19th century beauty industry mainstay. The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness devotes a chapter to "receipts" for hair- and skincare products with several recipes involving this substance. Spermaceti is an essential ingredient in Hartley's homemade cold creams and lip salves, in particular. For her "Superior Lip-Salve," Hartley suggests mixing "White wax, two and a half ounces; spermaceti, three quarters of an ounce; oil of almonds, four ounces. Mix well together, and apply a little to the lips at night."


The cosmetics of the day contained a number of ingredients that were just plain terrible for you (see: arsenic, belladonna). Lead was one of them. One of Hartley's variations on her "Milk of Roses" wash called for "half an ounce of sugar of lead." But, cautions Hartley, "This is a dangerous form to leave about where there are children, and should never be applied where there are any abrasions, or chaps on the surface." Duly noted.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing


1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.


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