12 Weird Things Our Ancestors Did

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If you believe that people were less eccentric in the past than they are today, think of their fashions and traditions. Maybe you’ll change your opinion.

USA Time has gathered a few things that our ancestors thought normal. We found out we’re not so odd after all.

12. First and second sleep

Europeans who lived in the Middle Ages practiced what we now call biphasic sleep. The first rest started at sunset and lasted until about midnight; then ancestors would wake up and stay awake for 2-3 hours. Some used that time to pray or read, and some spent it with their family or neighbors. Then came the time of the second sleep, which lasted until sunrise.

11. Live alarm clocks

Mujer con una cerbatana haciendo las veces de despertador (Londres, 1931)

A knocker-upper was a profession that existed from the mid-18th century until the 1950s. Their job was to wake people who had to get up early. They knocked on their clients’ windows with sticks or shot at them with peashooters. It’s unclear who woke up the knocker-uppers, but there’s a version that they didn’t go to bed before work at all.

10. Dresses for boys

From the 16th century and until around 1920, it was customary for little boys up until a certain age (4-8 years) to wear dresses. The main reason was perhaps the high cost of clothing: dresses were easier to make “to grow into.” The tradition didn’t bypass even royal families: this photo depicts Alexei, the son of the Russian Emperor Nicholas II, in a dress similar to those worn by his sisters.

9. Chopines

Venetian chopines

Chopines, also known as zoccoli or pianelle, are a kind of platform shoe up to 50 cm (20 in) high. Small wonder that those who wore them required the help of servants in order not to literally fall victim to fashion. Admittedly, chopines were worn not just out of style consciousness but also so as not to stain the wearer’s clothes in street mud.

8. Bloodletting against all diseases

This treatment mode was popular for 2,000 years until the early 20th century. Bloodletting was practiced to treat any ailment and often did more harm than good, weakening the patient even further.

7. Poor hygiene

In some medieval countries, ancestors believed that water only brought illness to man, and lice were called “the pearls of God.“ These beliefs were shared even by monarchs. Isabella I of Castille was proud of the fact that she only washed twice in her life: at birth and before her wedding. According to one testimony, a cavalier once made a comment upon her dirty hands and nails, to which the Queen replied, ”Oh, if only you could see my feet!”

6. Post-mortem photos

Another custom that today seems very bizarre. However, in the 19th hundred years, it was a way to preserve the memory of deceased loved ones. As a rule, the dead bodies were fashioned to appear alive in the photograph: they were seated in natural poses, and eyes were drawn on the closed eyelids, as in the image above.

5. Radioactive beauty products

In the first 20th century, radiation was perceived exclusively as a positive phenomenon, which swindlers didn’t fail to take advantage of: you could buy cosmetics, food, and drinks enriched with radium and thorium, radioactive souvenirs, and even devices for saturating water with radioactive elements.

Sadly, there were casualties. Athlete Eben Byers drank huge doses of the radium-based medicine Radithor, which led to his death. The Wall Street Journal reacted to this sad incident with a headline reading “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off.”

4. Heroin as a cough remedy

Surprisingly, 100 years ago, heroin was considered a harmless alternative to morphine and was sold in pharmacies as a cough medicine. It was even recommended for children. It was later discovered that heroin turns into morphine in the liver, and in 1924 its use was prohibited. In Germany, however, it was only outlawed in 1971.

3. Smoking onboard planes

As recently as 50 or 60 years ago, smoking wasn’t regarded as that bad a habit. People didn’t deny themselves this dubious pleasure even during flights, regardless of the presence of other passengers. Today smoking in planes is prohibited, but in a number of countries (such as with Iran) the ban hasn’t been implemented.

2. Bathing machines

Unlike us, people in the 18th and 19th centuries couldn’t just go into the water on the beach. They had to use bathing machines: special carts that looked like beach huts. The carts are drive into the water so that bathers can swim without any prying eyes watching them. Furthermore, women’s bathing machines are at some distance away from men’s.

1. Rocks as toilet paper

The list of things ancestors used before the invention of toilet paper could go on and on. It includes plant leaves, corn cobs, coconut shells, sheep wool and cloth (for those who could afford them), sponge on a stick, or just water. But the Ancient Greeks surprised us the most: for certain hygienic purposes, they used rocks, pebbles, or shards of pottery.

Preview photo credit Museum of Fine Arts Boston