6 Terrifying Beauty Practices from History

Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Woman, iStock. Corset X-Ray, Public Domain.
Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Woman, iStock. Corset X-Ray, Public Domain.

Chemical peels that burn layers of skin from your face. Appetite suppressants that come with a risk of heart failure. Cosmetic surgeries that change the appearance of a woman’s most intimate parts. There are plenty of modern cosmetic practices that run the gamut from physically painful to medically risky. But most don’t hold a candle to the hazardous cosmetic techniques of yore. Check out these historic beauty practices that are even scarier than modern ones.

1. WEARING CORSETS

You know what really turns men off? When women take deep breaths. In the 1800s, the invention of metal eyelets allowed women to cinch their corsets tighter than ever before, with acute medical consequences. In fairness, not all women tightened their corsets to the point of injury, and probably none of them achieved the 14-inch waist advertised in 19th century fashion magazines. But the stylish undergarments were often laced so tightly that they restricted women’s breathing. In the long term, wearing corsets caused muscle atrophy, deformed the ribcage, and misaligned the spine. And extreme corset use wasn’t just limited to women, as indicated by the warped ribs of a 19th-century Englishman whose body was excavated in the early 2000s. The study authors felt that it was likely an orthopedic corset, but noted “corset use to obtain a fashionable silhouette cannot be ruled out.”

2. EATING ARSENIC

In the 19th century and earlier, some people (mainly in Styria, a region that encompassed parts of modern Austria and Slovenia) consumed arsenic to “produce a blooming complexion, a brilliant eye, and an appearance of embonpoint [sexy stoutness],” according to one 1857 magazine article on the practice. There were safety rules, of course: You were only supposed to take it while the moon was waxing, and you could only eat only a dose as big as a single grain of millet at first. If you took more than that before you built up a tolerance, you could die. Once you began eating arsenic regularly, though, if you ever stopped, you’d suffer from painful withdrawal symptoms like vomiting and muscle spasms. But wait, there was another downside—because arsenic interferes iodine necessary for thyroid function, eating it gave people goiters. Blooming, brilliant, embonpoint goiters.

3. FOOT BINDING

A tradition that likely started around the late 10th century, foot binding was designed to turn a woman’s feet into 3-inch-long “golden lotuses” by folding the toes under and binding them tightly. The extremely painful practice began when a child was as young as 3 to 4 years old and continued into adulthood. The resulting wobbly walk and doll-like feet were considered highly attractive and vital to a woman’s marriage prospects. This one isn’t limited to the distant past, either: Foot binding wasn’t completely stamped out until China’s Communist Revolution in 1949, and there are still living Chinese women who feet were bound as children.

4. APPLYING RADIOACTIVE FACE CREAM

In the early 20th century, before anyone knew about the health risks of radiation, radioactive consumer products were all the rage. In the 1930s, an enterprising doctor named Alfred Curie capitalized his association with the famous radioactive researchers (who he definitely wasn’t related to) to launch Tho-radia, a French cosmetics brand whose products featured radioactive chemicals like thorium chloride and radium bromide. Advertisements for his face cream claimed that the radioactive formula could stimulate “cellular vitality,” firm up skin, cure boils and pimples, even out redness and pigmentation, erase wrinkles, stop aging, and help retain the “freshness and brightness of the complexion.” It’s all vitality and brightness until someone’s jaw falls off.

5. MAKING EYEDROPS OUT OF DEADLY NIGHTSHADE

Deadly nightshade is also called belladonna, or “beautiful woman,” a likely reference to its role in the cosmetic routines of ladies in Renaissance Italy and beyond. Italian women—and later, women in Victorian England—would squeeze drops of deadly nightshade into their eyes to dilate their pupils for a striking, wide-eyed look they thought was seductive. Unfortunately, the side effects included blurry vision, vertigo, and headaches. And the blindness reported to result from its extended use? Worth it, as long as you got the watery-eyed look of a consumptive. The active ingredient in deadly nightshade, atropine, is still used today to dilate the eyes during eye exams, but unlike the cosmetic belladonna drops of the past, the highly diluted modern versions won’t blind you.

6. USING LEAD MAKEUP

The 1700s were rough on the complexion. Even if you don’t count the miasmic filth in which even the richest people lived, there was smallpox to contend with—by the end of the 18th century, an estimated 400,000 Europeans were dying of it every year. If you were lucky enough to survive, the disease left severe scarring. The best way to cover these pockmarks and other cosmetic imperfections was lead face powder, and both men and women took advantage of it. It's great stuff—inexpensive and easy to make, coats well, and has a silky finish. Except even then, it was known to be wildly toxic. Not only did it cause eye inflammation, tooth rot, and baldness, but it also made the skin blacken over time, requiring yet more of the noxious powder to achieve the pure white face, shoulders, and chest that were so fashionable. Ah yes, and then there was the fact that using it could eventually kill you.

BONUS: EATING TAPEWORMS (MAYBE)

This controversial fad diet—which may or may not have actually existed—was not only dangerous, but also really gross. In the early 1900s, several newspaper accounts reported that women were eating pills filled with tapeworm eggs as a way to lose weight. The tapeworm eggs would supposedly hatch and take up residence in the intestine of their poor, plump host, consuming the nutrients that would otherwise be digested. This would keep the person malnourished and thin. However, even a century ago, doctors doubted people would subject themselves to this kind of pain to look good. In 1912, The Washington Post ran an article called “Tapeworm Pills For Fat People Merely A Wild Yarn, Say Experts.” But as we know, people have done crazier things in the name of beauty.

A version of this story ran in 2013.

Celebrate the Encyclopedia Britannica's 250th Birthday by Checking Out Its First Edition Online

Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Mario Tama/Getty Images

While those gold-embossed, multi-volume sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica were a feature of many an American childhood, the origins of the venerable reference work actually lie in Scotland. Two hundred and fifty years ago—on December 10, 1768—the first pages of the Britannica were published in Edinburgh. To celebrate the anniversary, the National Library of Scotland has put a rare first edition of the encyclopedia online.

The first edition was the brainchild of printer Colin Macfarquhar, engraver Andrew Bell, and the editor William Smellie. It was published in 100 weekly sections over three volumes (completed in 1771), but explicit engravings of midwifery scandalized some subscribers, and were ripped out on the orders of the Crown. The entries of the first edition—some of which ran to hundreds of pages—reflect the biases and preoccupations of their time: woman is defined as "the female of a man," while there are 39 pages devoted to horse diseases. Nevertheless, the work was a significant accomplishment that drew on at least 150 sources, from essays by famous philosophers to newspaper articles. It also featured 160 copperplate engravings by Bell.

The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica
The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

In a statement from the National Library of Scotland, Rare Books Curator Robert Betteridge said, "By the 20th century Britannica was a household name throughout the English-speaking world, and what is especially interesting about this publication was that it had a distinctly Scottish viewpoint. The first edition emphasized two themes—modern science and Scottish identity, including ground-breaking and controversial articles on anatomy and Scots Law."

The first edition (which includes those ripped-out midwifery pages) will appear as part of an exhibit on the Scottish Enlightenment at the National Library of Scotland this summer. For now, you can view all three volumes of the first edition, from "A—the name of several rivers" to Zygophyllum, a genus in botany—online here.

[h/t American Libraries]

The Time German and Russian WWI Soldiers Banded Together to Fight Wolves

iStock.com/567185
iStock.com/567185

During the winter of 1917, Russian and German soldiers fighting in the dreary trenches of the Great War’s Eastern Front had a lot to fear: enemy bullets, trench foot, frostbite, countless diseases, shrapnel, bayonets, tanks, sniper fire. Oh, and wolves.

In February of that year, a dispatch from Berlin noted that large packs of wolves were creeping from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia into the interior of the German Empire, not far from the front lines. Like so many living creatures, the animals had been driven from their homes by the war and were now simply looking for something to eat. “As the beasts are very hungry, they penetrate into the villages and kill calves, sheep, goats, and other livestock,” the report, which appeared in the El Paso Herald, says. “In two cases children have been attacked by them.”

According to another dispatch out of St. Petersburg, the wolves were such a nuisance on the battlefield that they were one of the few things that could bring soldiers from both sides together. “Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” the report says, according to the Oklahoma City Times. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.” It was an unspoken agreement among snipers that, if the Russians and Germans decided to engage in a collective wolf-hunt, all firing would cease.

Take this July 1917 New York Times report describing how soldiers in the Kovno-Wilna Minsk district (near modern Vilnius, Lithuania) decided to cease hostilities to fight this furry common enemy:

"Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance. But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger. Fresh packs would appear in place of those that were killed by the Russian and German troops.

"As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague. For a short time there was peace. And in no haphazard fashion was the task of vanquishing the mutual foe undertaken. The wolves were gradually rounded up, and eventually several hundred of them were killed. The others fled in all directions, making their escape from carnage the like of which they had never encountered."

Afterward, the soldiers presumably returned to their posts and resumed pointing their rifles at a more violent and dangerous enemy—each other.

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