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Composite: Getty Images
Composite: Getty Images

8 Questionable Substances People Once Used as Body Lotion

Composite: Getty Images
Composite: Getty Images

Before the advent of modern body cream, people came up with a lot of creative (and often horrifying) ways to soften their skin. Here are some of the strangest things people have ever slathered on in the quest for smoothness. 

1. TAR RESIDUE

There’s nothing like a dash of carcinogens to spice up your skin care routine. In 2011, researchers examined a cosmetic flask they believe belonged to the female Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut. Inside, they found traces of harmless moisturizers like palm and nutmeg oil. But the vial also contained the residue of an aromatic yet deadly chemical called benzo(a)pyrene, one of the most dangerous carcinogens in cigarette smoke and a by-product of burning coal tar. Repeated application of the substance, which can be absorbed through the skin, "has been demonstrated to induce skin tumors in guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, and mice," according to the EPA. Researchers believe Hatshepsut died of cancer in 1458 BCE. They say it's possible her dangerous skin cream played a role. 

2. CHICKEN BLOOD

People in ancient China invented a number of skin-softening concoctions. One unusual recipe called for dried peach blossoms and the blood of a black chicken. Mashed into a paste and applied as a face mask, this gruesome mixture supposedly nourished and lightened the skin. It was reportedly a favorite beauty treatment of Princess Taiping, who lived during the Tang and Zhou Dynasties in the mid 7th and early 8th centuries CE.

3. CROCODILE DUNG

Elegant ladies in ancient Rome kept their faces looking fresh with a few dabs of crocodile excrement. “Dainty women highly prize the dung of land crocodiles,” wrote Galen, a 3rd century Roman physician and philosopher. “For such women it is not enough that there are countless other cosmetics by which their faces are made smooth and shiny.” 

4. BREAD AND MILK

Some women in ancient Greece relaxed before bedtime with a facial of mashed bread and milk, which was thought to keep the skin soft and youthful. Many Roman women also made face masks from bread crumbs soaked in milk. Sometimes they left the masks on all day, and only washed them off if they had to run an errand.

5. WINE DREGS

When they weren’t indulging in bread crumb face masks, some women in ancient Rome covered their skin in the dregs of wine vats. They believed this fermented sludge made their skin smoother. 

6. MERCURY

A 19th-century British encyclopedia of medicinal remedies contains a recipe for a skin ointment called Gowland’s Lotion, intended as a “beautifier of the complexion.” The recipe calls for crushed almonds, water, and powdered “corrosive sublimate”—also known as mercuric chloride, the very poisonous chemical compound of mercury and chloride. It seems the encyclopedia’s author, Arnold James Cooley, was somewhat aware of this lotion’s toxicity; he didn’t recommend leaving it on the skin for too long. “It is employed by wetting the skin with it, either by means of the corner of a napkin or the fingers dipped into it,” he explained. “It is then gently wiped off with a dry cloth.” 

7. HONEY

Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician known as the father of modern medicine, swore by the moisturizing powers of honey. He claimed it “assures a fresh and jovial look” when applied to the face. He wasn’t the only one slapping on the sticky substance; at the time, honey was a popular moisturizer and exfoliator throughout the Mediterranean region.

8. ANIMAL FAT

In 2003, archaeologists unearthed a canister of white skin cream at an ancient Roman temple in Southwark, London. Incredibly, the ointment inside was still wet, and it bore the fingerprints of the person who had used it during the 2nd century CE. A chemical analysis of the cream revealed that it mainly consisted of animal fat from either cattle or sheep. Once they knew the chemical breakdown of the cream, a team of scientists at the University of Bristol whipped up a new batch of the lotion to try for themselves. “This cream had a pleasant texture when rubbed into the skin,” they noted

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Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
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15 Jokes From the World's Oldest Jokebook
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.

The oldest recorded joke—a lowbrow Sumerian quip stating "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap"—dates back to 1900 BCE, eking out a pharaoh wisecrack from Ancient Egypt by a solid three centuries.

But to pilfer one of the oldest jokes in the book means dusting off the Philogelos (meaning "Laughter Lover"), a Greek anthology of more than 200 jokes from the fourth or fifth century. From gags about dunces to jests at the expense of great thinkers, here are 15 jokes from the oldest existing collection of jokes, as translated by now-retired classical languages professor William Berg.

1. A STUDENT DUNCE GOES SWIMMING

comedians
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A student dunce went swimming and almost drowned. So now he swears he'll never get into water until he's really learned to swim."

2. AN INTELLECTUAL VISITS A FRIEND

ancient dancers
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man's wife said that he had 'departed,' the intellectual replied: 'When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?'"

3. THE MISER'S WILL

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A miser writes his will and names himself as the heir."

4. THE SHARP-WITTED SPECTATOR

ancient theater
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A sharp wit observes a slow runner: 'I know just what that gentleman needs.' 'What's that?' demands the sponsor of the race. 'He needs a horse, otherwise, he can't outrun the competition!'"

5. THE HOT-HEADED DOCTOR

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Consulting a hotheaded doctor, a fellow says, 'Professor, I'm unable to lie down or stand up; I can't even sit down.' The doctor responds: 'I guess the only thing left is to hang yourself.'"

6. THE COWARDLY SAILOR

treater rehearsal
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A coward is asked which are safer, warships or merchant-ships. 'Dry-docked ships,' he answers."

7. THE JEALOUS LANDLORD

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An envious landlord sees how happy his tenants are. So he evicts them all."

8. THE DRUNK BARKEEPER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A drunk opens a bar, and stations a chained bear outside."

9. THE GUY WITH BAD BREATH

ancient comedian
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself."

10. THE WIFE-HATER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A wife-hater is attending the burial of his wife, who has just died. When someone asks, 'Who is it who rests in peace here?', he answers, 'Me, now that I'm rid of her!'"

11. THE LUCKLESS EUNUCH

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia."

12. THE HUSBAND WITH HALITOSIS

Roman woman holding a mask
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A husband with bad breath asks his wife, 'My dear, why do you hate me?' She give him an answer: 'Because you kiss me.'"

13. THE GLUTTONOUS GIFTER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A glutton is marrying his daughter off to another glutton. Asked what he's giving her as a dowry, he responds, 'She's getting a house with windows that look out onto the bakery.'"

14. TOO TIRED TO CARE

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Two lazy-bones are fast asleep. A thief comes in, pulls the blanket from the bed, and makes off with it. One of them is aware of what happened and says to the other, 'Get up! Go after the guy who stole our blanket!' The other responds, 'Forget it. When he comes back to take the mattress, let's grab him then.'"

15. THE FORGETFUL TEACHER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An incompetent teacher is asked the name of Priam's mother. At a loss, he says, 'Well, we call her Ma'am out of politeness.'"

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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