In many circles, people tend to think of the dawn of the United States of America as “the good old days.” Our forefathers, the colonists, had escaped from under the thumb of British rule. They were forging their own paths in the New World, and they were the masters of their own destinies!
It wasn’t all bravery and Bill of Rights freedom, though. The idea of founding a new country is glamorous, but the reality was far from so. After the fife and drum corps had gone home, colonists were left dealing with disease, massacres, witch hunts, maggots, and so, so many accidental gun deaths.
1. From the start, the road to the New World was rocky and harsh. The Mayflower almost sunk mid-voyage after the son of one Mr. John Billington goofed off with his father’s rifle. He took it into the hold and fired it into a room full of gunpowder.
2. Though the Billingtons survived long enough to reach the colonies, they didn’t fare much better there. Rowdiness ran in the family, and John Billington decided to run his mouth and plan a coup. He ended up shooting another colonist over a squabble and was hanged as the colonies’ first murderer.
3. Petty fights like this were often over land disputes. The Mason-Dixon line was established when, after 82 years, two families — the Penns of Pennsylvania and the Calverts of Maryland — finally called in third-party surveyors to fairly divide their property.
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4. The colonists loved any reason to fight with one another, and their religious backgrounds led to them being suspicious of witchcraft. In 1642, it was classified as a death-penalty offense, and accusations could be pretty baseless.
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5. Only one person was required to be a witness at witchcraft trials, and hearsay was accepted as evidence. You could even be accused of witchcraft that caused your neighbor to shoot someone. Fourteen women and five men were hanged before officials reevaluated their trial system.
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6. You can thank your lucky stars for modern medicine, because colonial medicine was torturous. Doctors in those days believed one of two things: either sickness was caused by a contagious agent — which ended up being right — or sickness was caused by an imbalance of “solids and fluids” in the body.
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7. Unfortunately, most doctors’ beliefs fell into the second category, and the treatments they gave patients were intended to get rid of solids or fluids. This usually meant that medicines were things that made people vomit or defecate — the more explosive, the better.
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8. Colonial doctors also knew about hygiene. They knew a buildup of earwax could cause deafness, and they knew clean fingernails helped prevent sickness. Upper-class folks carried a special multitool designed with a pick for cleaning nails and a scoop for cleaning earwax.
9. The doctors who believed in sickness being caused by germs used their knowledge to deadly effect. Officers were recorded as having intentionally given blankets from the Fort Pitt smallpox hospital to a Native American tribe who had the fort under siege.
10. Skirmishes with indigenous tribes were a constant shadow hanging over the colonists. In the 1630s in now-Connecticut, the Pequot tribe and the Puritan settlers were battling over a land tract, with the Puritans almost losing until they lit the Pequot fort on fire, killing 500.
11. Another grim tale comes from the 1690s, when new mother Hannah Duston’s small village was raided. Duston, her baby, and her maid were taken captive, and travelled north with the Abenaki tribe. But when the baby slowed the journey down, it was murdered.
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12. Duston snapped. When the tribe stopped to sleep for the night, Duston and her maid killed them all, and scalped them, too — including six young children. She returned home to her settlement, and the gruesome story was spread and immortalized.
13. Even so-called peace talks were violent. Around 1622, an attack on Jamestown killed 25% of the colonists, and when the local tribe showed up to negotiate a treaty, the colonists poisoned their wine. 200 of the tribe’s members died, and 50 more were killed in a follow-up raid.
14. As the years wore on, and settlers started to get the upper hand, the colonial government issued the Phips Proclamation. It said there’d be a bounty paid for any Native American taken captive, whether dead or alive.
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15. The bounty didn’t just apply to entire people taken captive. Scalps were worth money, too, and the scalps of children were just as valuable. That’s where the term “redskins” comes from — the bloody scalps of murdered people.
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16. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, the dog-eat-dog community of the colonial settlers was born from crime. Many settlers didn’t even want to be there; Britain used parts of the Americas as a penal colony, shipping over roughly 52,000 convicted criminals.
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17. Settlers’ crimes widely varied in severity. Some had felony rap sheets, while others were merely women who’d been out and about after 10 o’clock at night. And the convicts were used as “replacements,” too, shipped over when the first wave got massacred.
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18. Other law-abiding settlers, lured by the promise of land ownership or free passage to the Americas, made deals to become indentured servants for high-status settlers. This often ended badly. Indentured servants were physically abused, and their service contracts were rarely kept.
19. Servants were young, too. One boy, found by archeologists in Maryland, was only around 15 when he was beaten to death, and damage on his teeth and spine showed that he’d been working hard labor for many years prior. He was secretly buried in a grave disguised as a trash pile.
20. According to the Smithsonian, the first slave in America started out as an indentured servant. John Casor was supposed to have a “seven or eight year” contract of service to Anthony Johnson, but because Casor was from Africa, judges ruled that English contract law didn’t apply to him, and that he was Johnson’s property.
Early America was no picnic, but England was pretty rough too, even into Victorian times. Toothpaste wasn’t invented until later, so Brits used homemade “Dentifrices” instead. Some of these included ingredients like chalk and bleach, and one particularly popular solution was made of charcoal and honey — yuck!
We know now that arsenic is a dangerous poison, but back in the Victorian Era, it had a completely different use. Men used it as a sexual stimulant, and women used it to prevent wrinkles.
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Mourning was taken very seriously in Victorian England. Mourners would often wear jewelry that included hair from the deceased, and special bottles were used to collect tears. They weren’t messing around!
Raw meat: good for all purposes! Well, that’s what Victorian Brits thought after reading a popular beauty column that advertised laying strips of raw beef on your face at night to improve your complexion. Needless to say, don’t try this at home.
With the Industrial Revolution came a number of… strange uses for the newfound technology. Doctors started using electricity as a form of “shock therapy,” basically hoping to zap ailments like gout and arthritis out of patients. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.
The River Thames may be beautiful to look at now, but back in the 1800s it was so full of sewage that the smell was often sickening. This was obviously a major issue, as the river was also Londoners’ main source of drinking water.
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Before child labor laws were a thing, some kids were forced to work long hours in terrible conditions as chimney sweeps or textile mill operators. Thankfully, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed in 1891, and children were granted some protections.
Hemophilia was well known for a long time as “the royal disease” because it ravaged several royal families across Europe. Queen Victoria herself was actually the first to carry it in the British royal family, passing it down for generations to come.
If electricity wasn’t your thing, Victorian doctors had another form of therapy you could try: water! So-called “hydrotherapy” was used to treat everything from baldness in men to “hysteria” in women.
Food trucks aren’t just a modern invention; in Victorian Britain, street vendors were everywhere. The most popular choice of the era? Sheep’s feet. Customers would buy these “trotters” and then suck the meat and fat right off the bone. Yuck.
Clean water wasn’t always so easy to come by in Victorian England. In fact, many people would just avoid the risk of drinking it altogether and settle for the next best thing: beer. You know what, maybe Victorian England wasn’t so bad after all.
Don’t underestimate them; Victorian Brits rocked pretty hard. After the Prince of Wales spotted some killer tattoos on a trip to Jerusalem, he kickstarted a trend back in England and pretty soon almost 100,000 Brits had gotten inked.
Here’s a hobby that we don’t need making a comeback: taxidermy. A popular pasttime in Victorian England was stuffing dead animals and rearranging them into little “scenes.” Some say cute — we say creepy.
For decades, London was known for its thick, pungent fog that blanketed the entire city. The fog was a byproduct of all the new factories, coal pollution, and sewage dumped into the Thames. Until the Clean Air Act was passed in 1956, thousands died from inhaling the stuff.
Makeup may be commonplace now, but a few hundred years ago it was usually considered tacky. Instead, women would pinch their cheeks or apply cold cream to get the desired effects. Seems like a lot of work for a little payoff.
Ever wondered why museums dedicate so much space to the Ancient Egyptians? We’ve got Victorian Brits to thank for that. Egyptology became a huge hit in the 1800s, and people would flock to museums to see the latest mummies and artifacts.
Victorians were also to thank for hobbies like hypnotism and divination. Bored victorians would flock to any event where someone would perform hypnosis, speak to the dead, or read palms. No surprises here: a lot of these “mystics” were just hucksters making a quick buck.
Surgery wasn’t widely available in the Victorian Era, but for those ailments where it was an option, it was a horrifying one. Because anesthesia and painkillers weren’t around, patients would have to be awake and fully conscious for the procedures.
Holy smokes, were Victorian Brits bored or what? A popular parlor game in the Victorian era was “Snapdragon,” in which people would try and fish raisins out of a flaming bowl and eat them while they burned.
Angel Meadow: sounds like a nice place, right? In reality, the residents of this Manchester slum weren’t too fond of living there, and it got the nickname “hell on earth” because conditions were so terrible.
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Though keeping oneself clean is common practice in our day, hygiene was a somewhat controversial topic in the 18th century. Some doctors actually advocated against bathing regularly, as they believed the body’s oils were essential to good health.
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Religion and cleanliness also went hand in hand, as filth and dirt were often equated with sin and the devil. Morality came into play as well, as those who were clean were looked at as less likely to commit wrongdoings.
While most rinsed their hands and faces each morning, full-body baths were uncommon among most men, women, and children. Infants, however, were bathed regularly, though this was more so in an effort to “harden” them than to clean them.
In some cases, women actually preferred not to bathe and used their uncleanliness as a means of self defense. Using their body odor, they hoped to repel the unwanted advances of overly persistent men.
Another deterrent to bathing was the size of most wash basins, as only the extraordinarily wealthy could afford bathtubs large enough to hold an adult. Freshwater bodies like lakes served as basins of a sort for lower-class men, yet soap was rarely brought along.
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This was because lye soap — made from a mixture of animal fat, lye, and ash — was difficult to make and incredibly harsh on skin. Instead, this soap was used to wash clothing and dishes.
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Yet not all clothes were washed equally, as the process of drawing water, heating it, cleaning the clothes, and wringing them out to dry was a strenuous one. Therefore, only the dirtiest clothes — aprons, underwear, diapers, and the like — were cleaned.
Unfortunately, this meant that most blankets and bedsheets went unwashed, leading to frequent bug infestations. Fleas, cockroaches, and mosquitos were prevalent, and some even resorted to sleeping beside campfires to keep the bugs at bay.
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Lice were also a frequent nuisance, especially when it came to the powdered wigs that most upper-class colonists wore. Despite most men and women shaving their heads to prevent the bugs from nesting, their wigs served as the perfect place for lice to settle in.
Washing the wigs did little to rid them of infestation, leading colonists to coat them in bergamot, bay leaves, and other repellents to keep the bugs away. Unfortunately, the rich pomades used to style the wigs only served as a magnet for hungry lice.
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George Washington wrote often about his experiences with such “vermin” and mandated that soldiers wash their shirts weekly and their hands and face daily during wartime. Close-quarter camps served as breeding grounds for parasites and disease, especially the deadly smallpox.
To keep camps in order, “camp followers” traveled alongside the military and tended to their sanitary needs. These individuals — who were mostly women and slaves — ensured that the soldiers’ meals were properly prepared and washed their uniforms as needed.
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When a man needed a shave he visited a barber, who was typically a highly skilled man of color. Women, on the other hand, didn’t shave at all, as common conventions dictated that they show very little skin.
For those women that did seek to remove hair, plucking was a standard option (Eyebrows won’t tweeze themselves!). Eighteenth-century medical journals suggest that depilatory creams — some of which utilized limestone and arsenic — were also used.
Dental care was also somewhat of a mismanaged science, as most people had little concern for the health of their mouth. When toothaches did arise, remedies like chamomile, alcohol, and opium were used to dull the pain.
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In most cases an extraction was required, though taking a trip to the dentist wasn’t an option back then. Instead, sufferers visited their local surgeon, apothecary, barber, or even blacksmith to have a tooth pulled.
For those that were conscious of their oral health, metal tooth pickers were available for purchase. Unfortunately, these instruments were also used for a variety of other unsavory tasks, including picking the nails and scooping wax from the ears.
On another level of unsavory, outhouses — or, more specifically, covered holes in the ground — served as bathrooms for most colonists. Chamberpots were also used, their contents simply dumped out the window once full.
Not only were these practices unsanitary, but they also posed serious health risks. Feces and other contaminants would typically seep into the groundwater or runoff into streams and lakes, leading to high levels of contamination.
This, perhaps, is why disease was so widespread within the colonies. Cholera, typhoid fever, and influenza were extremely prevalent, and dysentery — commonly known as the “bloody flux” — ravaged the population.
Believe it or not, health practices back in Medieval times were actually much worse than these. During this time, heating water for a single bath took so long that families would actually share used bathwater. Let’s hope they only shared their baths with other people…
Baldness Cures: Balding men of the Renaissance were convinced that rubbing a combination of chicken poop and potassium on their heads would help their hair grow back. Did it work? Judging by what Shakespeare looked like in his later years, the answer is a resounding “no”.
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Cough Remedies: Have a tickle in your throat? Doctors once believed that combining one pound of slimy snails and one pound of sugar would create a syrup perfect for coating the throat and curing coughs. Just make sure they don’t get on your face…
Contraception: Ancient Egyptian women once used crocodile dung as birth control. Molding the dung into the form of a pessary, they believed that the excrement was thick enough to prevent pregnancy.
Makeup: When paleness was once seen as the ideal skin tone, chalk became the primary means of whiting the face. Not only did women smear chalk powder on their face, but they also ate it as well, making them so sick that they’d turn pale as a result.
Feminine Products: The invention of tampons and most feminine products are relatively modern, so women of the past had to make do with whatever they had lying around. That included clumps of moss, torn right out of the forest floor!
Dental Health: During the Elizabethan era, sugar was only available to the upper echelon of society. Therefore, sugar-rotted teeth were considered a symbol of wealth, and peasants would even go as far as faking the disease just to look richer.
Birth Control: Before the days of pills and injections, women drank all kinds of concoctions to prevent pregnancy. The grossest of them all was a tea from Canada made entirely from the genitals of male beavers.
Fashion: Why buy another outfit when the one you’re wearing fits just fine? This was the logic of many families before the 19th century when most people had an average of four pairs of clothing to their name—one for each season.
Dentures: Back before false teeth were invented, those looking for a new set of pearly whites had to get them from the only people willing to give them up: the dead. In fact, many dentures during the time were constructed from the teeth of dead soldiers.
Flowers: These petaled beauties certainly aren’t gross, but some of the things they were once used for definitely are. In the times where people didn’t bathe much, flowers were always kept on hand to mask the stench of body odor.
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Medicine: In the days before their deaths, 16th-century Arabic men ate nothing but honey and were then buried in coffins full of honey after passing. The corpse was dug up several weeks later and pieces of the body were eaten as a miracle cure.
Laundry Day: Before we had OxiClean and Tide, we had urine, which is sterile and contains ammonia. Not only did people once wash their clothes with urine, but they also used it as mouthwash, too.
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Labor Aides: No epidurals here, just more animal dung. During labor, Medieval women were given eagle poop mixed with oil and vinegar in order to ease the pain of childbirth.
Surgery: Germs weren’t a thing until the mid-1800s, so none of the surgical equipment used by doctors before then was ever sterilized. Maybe getting a checkup back then wasn’t such a good idea after all…
Dental Hygiene: Toothpaste is another modern invention, and in the days before straight baking soda was introduced as a dental hygiene product, people would often use burnt herbs like rosemary and mint to brush their teeth. That’s better than the Romans, who reportedly brushed their teeth with mouse brains.
Dieting: Why watch your diet when you can eat anything you want and not gain a pound? That was the pitch by quack doctors of the early 20th century when they pushed tapeworms as weight-loss supplements.
Toilet Paper: Just kidding! There wasn’t any. That’s why when nature came calling, people would use things like leaves, rags, a wet cloth on a stick, or even their own hand to get the job done.
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Feminine Hygiene: You’ve heard of Lysol as a kitchen cleaner, but Lysol as a feminine product? Before it found its way under every kitchen sink in America, Lysol was initially marketed as a way to “keep women fresh”.
Cleaning Solutions: Forget everything you know about mopping the floor because ancient Egyptians once used the powdered remains of mummies to clean their homes. They also used the powder as a cure-all, rubbing it on their skin and ingesting it in large doses.
Diaries kept by a passionate Roman foodie name Apicius detailed some of the utterly bonkers recipes that were considered the best eats across the Empire. It reads more like magic potion ingredients than a cookbook.
There were meals that sounded particularly witchy, like spayed sow’s womb, paunch of a suckling pig, and stuffed dormouse casserole. But the Romans experimented with eating pretty much any animal you can think of: parrots, peacocks, dolphins, and giraffes.
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On recovered Roman shipwrecks, archaeologists found jars of a popular condiment called garum. This sun-fermented fish sauce was often sopped up with bread but was also loaded with parasitic tapeworm eggs. No thanks!
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Etiquette standards were nonexistent in Ancient Rome. Dinner party guests simply disposed of their cleaned animal bones by tossing them willy nilly onto the floor. Later, slaves were ordered to clean the mulch of food scraps that had collected.
Since sitting down for lunch was gambling with parasites and bacteria, it follows suit that Roman medicinal practices were not even close to as sterile as contemporary medicine. Animal and human excrement were used topically and orally for cures and holistic treatments.
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Roman medicine shifted the medical standard from largely supernatural to focused on balancing the four humors of the body: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Bloodletting was popular just for the heck of restoring equilibrium.
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Studying fossilized Roman fecal matter revealed a wide variety of infections and parasites commonly borne out of poor hygiene and sanitary conditions, dysentery and roundworm among them, which experts say has something to do with a common farming practice of the time.
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The filthiness of human waste just wasn’t a blip on ancient Roman radar. They viewed excrement as a natural resource, spreading it as fertilizer for crops, fulfilling a toxic and nightmarish cycle when they tucked in to eat their yield.
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Urine proved useful as laundry detergent. It was the job of a fuller to leave out and collect jugs of urine on the street to wash clothes in it since the ammonia worked to remove stains.
Toilet paper shortages were a non-issue back in Ancient Rome. To clean their keisters, they reached for a sponge on a stick called a xylospongium. Bathrooms consisted of a bench with holes, reminiscent of an outhouse.
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There’s an obvious red flag to this scenario. A sponge on a stick probably worked well enough, sure. Until you factor in the fact that xylospongium were shared amongst many people, and who can say if they were cleaned.
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Nobody gave ancient Romans the memo that public nudity was lewd. They treated stone walls of public spaces like personal Craigslist ads. People carved out sexually explicit images and propositions as jokes, and also because they was supposed to boost virility.
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On an ethical note, many Roman practices were indisputably messed up. Marriage, for example, was forced on girls as young as 12 years old, and that was the age restriction imposed by law.
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Of course, it wasn’t much easier for Roman boys. The raucous lifestyles of emperors are fairly well known, and the grim tone of their parties revolved around using minors as their sexual tools.
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Charges of incest reached all the way to the top, most famously with Emperor Caligula. He was accused of having affairs with several of his sisters, and later publicly claimed his mother Agrippina was born of an incestuous relationship.
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Committing a crime in ancient Rome was risking the most gruesome punishment imaginable. Their torture was creative — they fed the guilty to wild animals and buried alive disgraced Vestal Virgins — but the worst was saved for people who committed the most heinous acts.
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Sinister minds developed what they felt was an appropriate punishment for people who murdered their fathers, which involved putting the convicted in a bag with a reactive animal like a snake, rooster, or monkey, and tossing them into the Tiber River.
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Life for the average ancient Roman was regularly anticipating brutality. No one was safe from the wrath of the soldiers conquering cities; innocent civilians, women, and children — all were slaughtered by the thousands. Entire cities burned to ash.
While they definitely took a major leap forward with public health initiatives like aqueducts and bathhouses, none of these would pass the most lenient of health inspections. The olive oil they slathered on every bather, as well as their dead skin scrapers, were perpetually reused.
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After thousands of years of modernization, development, and societal growth, we still had miles to go in terms of proper hygiene. Looking back at the health habits of the American colonists, it’s shocking how much cleanliness standards changed in only a few hundred years.
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