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.

10 Surprising Facts About Ernest Hemingway

Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ernest Hemingway was a titan of 20th-century literature, converting his lived experiences in multiple wars into rich, stirring tales like A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. The avid sportsman also called upon his love for the outdoors to craft bittersweet metaphorical works like Big Two-Hearted River and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Old Man and the Sea. Here are 10 facts about the writer known as Papa, who was born on July 21, 1899.

1. Ernest Hemingway earned the Italian Silver Medal of Valor and a Bronze Star.

Hemingway served as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, and on July 8, 1918, he was badly wounded by mortar fire—yet he managed to help Italian soldiers reach safety. The action earned him an Italian Silver Medal of Valor. That honor was paralleled almost 30 years later when the U.S. awarded him a Bronze Star for courage displayed while covering the European theater in World War II as a journalist. His articles appeared in Collier’s and other magazines.

2. Ernest Hemingway was also accused—and cleared—of war crimes.

Following D-Day on June 6, 1944, when Hemingway, a civilian, was not allowed to disembark on Omaha Beach, he led a band of Resistance fighters in the French town of Rambouillet on a mission to gather intelligence. The problem was, war correspondents aren't supposed to lead armed troops, according to the Geneva Convention. The Inspector General of the Third Army charged Hemingway with several serious offenses, including removing patches from his clothing that identified him as a journalist, stockpiling weapons in his hotel room, and commanding a faction of Resistance operatives. Eventually, he was cleared of wrongdoing.

Hemingway always maintained that he’d done nothing but act as an advisor. He wrote to The New York Times in 1951, stating he “had a certain amount of knowledge about guerilla warfare and irregular tactics as well as a grounding in more formal war, and I was willing and happy to work for or be of use to anybody who would give me anything to do within my capabilities.”

3. Gertrude Stein was godmother to Ernest Hemingway's son, Jack.

Renowned American modernist writer Gertude Stein moved to Paris in 1903 and hosted regular salons that were attended by luminaries and artists of the time. They included Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a young Ernest Hemingway. Stein became godmother to Hemingway’s first son, Jack, in 1923.

4. Ernest Hemingway was allegedly a KGB spy—but he wasn't very good at it.

When Collier's sent the legendary war correspondent Martha Gellhorn to China for a story in 1941, Hemingway, her husband, accompanied her and filed dispatches for PM. Documentation from the Stalin-era KGB (revealed in a 2009 book) shows that Hemingway was possibly recruited as a willing, clandestine source just prior to the trip and was given the codename “Argo.” The documents also show that he didn’t deliver any useful political intel, wasn’t trained for espionage, and only stayed on their list of active sources until the end of the decade.

5. Ernest Hemingway checked out F. Scott Fitzgerald's penis in the men's room.

Hemingway chronicled his life in Paris in his 1964 memoir A Moveable Feast, and revealed one notorious encounter with the Great Gatsby author in the book. Fitzgerald remarked that his wife Zelda has mocked his manhood by claiming he wouldn't be able to satisfy a lover. Hemingway suggested he investigate for himself. He took Fitzgerald to the bathroom at Michaud's, a popular restaurant in Paris, to examine his penis. Hemingway ultimately told his friend that his physical endowment was of a totally normal size and suggested he check out some nude statues at the Louvre for confirmation.

6. One of Ernest Hemingway's best works came about from him leaving some luggage at the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

Speaking of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote it later in life (it was published posthumously) after a 1956 stay at the Ritz Hotel in Paris wherein he was reminded that he’d left a steamer trunk (made for him by Louis Vuitton) in the hotel’s basement in 1930. When he opened it, he rediscovered personal letters, menus, outdoor gear, and two stacks of notebooks that became the basis for the memoir of his youth in Paris's café culture.

7. The famous "Baby Shoes" story is most likely a myth.

Oddly enough, a story many people associate with Hemingway probably has nothing to do with him. The legend goes that one night, while drinking, Hemingway bet some friends that he could write a six-word short story. Incredulous, they all put money on the table, and on a napkin Hemingway wrote the words “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” He won the bet. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence it ever happened. Some newspapers had printed versions of the six-word plotline in the 1910s without crediting Hemingway, and there's no record of his link to the phrase until 1991 (in a book about the publishing business), three decades after Hemingway’s death.

8. Ernest Hemingway almost died in back-to-back plane crashes.

In 1954, Hemingway and his fourth wife, Time and Life correspondent Mary Welsh, were vacationing in Belgian Congo when their sightseeing charter flight clipped a utility pole and crashed. When attempting to reach medical care in Entebbe the following day, they boarded another plane, which exploded upon takeoff, leaving Hemingway with burns, a concussion, and his brain leaking cerebral fluid. When they finally got to Entebbe (by truck), they found journalists had already reported their deaths, so Hemingway got to read his own obituaries.

9. Ernest Hemingway dedicated a book to each of his four wives.

Each time he got divorced, Hemingway was married again within the year—but he always left something behind in print. The dedication for The Sun Also Rises went to his first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson; Death in the Afternoon was dedicated to second wife Pauline Pfeiffer; For Whom the Bell Tolls was for third wife Martha Gellhorn; and Across the River and Into the Trees went “To Mary with Love.”

10. Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West features a urinal from his favorite bar.

Hemingway wrote several iconic works, including To Have and Have Not, at his house in Key West, Florida. It’s also where he converted a urinal from a local bar into a fountain. Local haunt Sloppy Joe’s was a favorite watering hole of the irascible author, so when the place went under renovation, Hemingway took one of the urinals as a memento, quipping that he’d already poured enough money into it to make it his.

Richard Nixon Had a Speech Prepared In the Event That Apollo 11's Mission Failed

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin share a laugh with President Richard Nixon while aboard the USS Hornet on July 24, 1969.
Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin share a laugh with President Richard Nixon while aboard the USS Hornet on July 24, 1969.
Richard Nixon Foundation via Getty Images

In July 1969, the world watched as the crew of Apollo 11 successfully entered lunar orbit, landed, then blasted off and returned to Earth. At each step of the way there were dangers and NASA had backup plans in case something went terribly wrong—though there wasn't much NASA could do from 384,403 kilometers away. In 1999, William Safire discussed the speech he wrote for President Richard Nixon just in case the mission failed. From Safire's article:

The most dangerous part of the trip was not landing the little module on the moon, but in launching it back up to the mother ship. If that failed, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could not be rescued. Mission Control would have to "close down communications" and, as the world agonized, let the doomed astronauts starve to death or commit suicide.

Nixon aides H. R. Haldeman and Peter Flanigan told me to plan for that tragic contingency. On July 18, 1969, I recommended that "in event of moon disaster . . . the President should telephone each of the widows-to-be" and after NASA cut off contact "a clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to 'the deepest of the deep,' concluding with the Lord's Prayer." A draft Presidential speech was included.

Here's a scan of the speech:

And here's the text:

IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

This story has been updated for 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER