The 19th-century United States can be described by the title of a Clint Eastwood movie: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. But diving between the lines of historical textbooks reveals we need to add three more adjectives to that Eastwood flick: The Weird, The Uncomfortable, and the Dangerous. As the nation took its first steps beyond independence, her citizens faced some daily trials that make modern Americans wonder how anyone back then could even last a day.
Traffic, overcrowding, pollution, construction, and a booming population certainly made for a rough city living experience. But back in the 1800s that was all exacerbated by poor hygiene practices and workers grinding away in filthy factories before there were any labor laws or standards in place.
Kids couldn’t catch a break! Lax child labor laws saw kids working seven days a week on farms or in factories, especially during the Industrial Revolution, when cash-holding fat cats realized kids were less likely to organize into unions.
People pay about $80 to have a cabby take them around Central Park via horseback for 45 minutes without learning the realities of 19th-century travel: horses pooped everywhere, requiring rich people to wear raised shoes so they didn’t “sink in.”
Industrial Revolutions saw cities expand at unprecedented rates, which meant engineers didn’t get a chance to study what to do and what not to do. Buildings and neighborhoods didn’t meet any fire codes, and rudimentary firefighting tech limited meaningful responses to any raging blazes.
Britain was mad about losing control of the United States, so the nation returned in 1812 to sort out some details — with violence. But after taking Washington D.C. and burning down the White House, the campaign ended with a treaty. Britain needed to focus war efforts on Napoleon.
Infectious outbreaks were so prevalant that there’s a Wikipedia page just for “Diseases and epidemics of the 19th century.” Cholera was new to the scene, and people constantly battled smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, and tuberculosis.
Blame it on old-timey medical knowledge, crippling poverty, or a number of other factors, but in the 19th century, about 40 percent of kids — according to Our World in Data — perished before making it to age five.
Surviving a day in the 19th century was a bit like dodging traffic, and cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, bad diets, and lacking medical knowledge were the cars speeding down the highway. Data is skewed (because of the infant mortality rate), but the average life span was about 41 years.
You thought your mother-in-law taking photos at the family picnic was a bit annoying? Well, in the 1800s, people often posed for pictures with the propped-up bodies of their newly deceased relatives. It was, after all, the last chance to get a photo to remember them by.
In the 19th century, the United States fought in over 60 wars. Maybe the nation just wanted to beat its chest after thwarting those dastardly red coats in the Revolution? The Civil War alone saw between 650,000 and 1,000,000 deaths.
Traveling wasn’t easy, so 19th-century country folks didn’t see too many people outside of their local community. Storms could wreck harvests and ruin livelihoods in a heartbeat, and illnesses and injuries were hard to treat with medical care often far away.
Those deemed mentally ill (and anyone could be diagnosed as mentally ill for almost any reason) were often thrown into prisons or left for families to manage. Rare treatment options included electro-shocking, bloodletting, and purgatives.
At first an innocent game, boys asked girls for their hairpins — a token of a successful flirt. But then the challenge evolved into snagging the pins without the girls knowing. “I know fellows who have followed a girl for squares,” one man told the local paper.
All of the flower petals and perfumes in the world couldn’t mask a 19th-century musk. The stink of the day really sank in, since tooth brushing wasn’t happening frequently yet, soap wasn’t a household item, and baths were maybe a weekly thing.
In the late century, riding in a car was just a cool thing for rich people to do. An 1899 newspaper article out of the Kansas’s Daily Monitor, debated what to call the fad, writing “society is wondering over tea cups as to whether it shall go ‘automobiling,’ ‘autoing,’ or ‘biling.'”
In the 19th-century, lobster was a food for the poor. The crustacean came out of the ocean by the basket full, and early Americans hadn’t discovered pouring butter on everything yet. Servants needed clauses in their contracts that prevented lobster dinners more than 3 times per week.
“The idea is this,” one New York City newspaper reported of the “ring turning” trend. “If a young lady meets a young man with a ring on his finger, she is to turn the ring two or three times.” Some establishments had to put out signs banning the practice.
Notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes built a hotel so he could, well, serially kill people. He soundproofed bedrooms, loaded the place with trap doors, and included two incinerators for body disposal.
There’s a reason you’ve never heard a friend long for “the good ol’ days of 19th-century medicine.” Patients were dosed with alcohol, morphine — which was commercially produced by mid-century, and things like “Fruit Salt.” Ailments like asthma were treated with heroin.
Wow, you might be thanking, good thing humanity got its act together in the 20th century! Well, that’s not exactly right. These beauty practices from the 1900s show we’re not so far removed from some pretty offbeat practices.
Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably gotten a good chuckle from a vibrating belt. Taking the weight loss industry by storm, these jigglers were responsible for more giggles than gains.
In the 1930s, Cosmetics titan Max Factor was the mastermind behind the beauty micrometer. This torturous-looking device measured which areas of your face needed the most makeup. Charming.
It’s safe because it’s pink! Actually, of all the chamber-style beauty contraptions, the Vibrosaun was harmless. Inside the machine, heat and vibrations simulated exercise. While it moves those muscles, cold air was blasted into your totally relaxed face.
The minds behind this electric current treatment made big promises: “the equivalent of eight hours hard exercise,” they declared, “but the fortunate recipient doesn’t have to move off her comfortable couch.” Today you might call this a defibrillator.
There are two constants confirmed by this photo: dogs and beauty products are universal human obsessions. A person and her pooch get matching waves from a device that resembles a bunch of suspended microphones bumping into their noggins.
The mark of a great facial is that it involves the kind of machinery you’d see in a top dollar car wash. Really, they buffed out every imperfection.
Eyebrow trends are constantly changing, and back in the ’30s, an impressive arch was desirable. Electric treatments zapped out stray hairs to achieve the ideal curve. Similar processes exist today, with rising fads in brow tattooing and microblading.
Logistically, this product was a plain old mess. By the time you got your lashes out of the eyelash stencil, all the hard work was for naught. Though, this is probably great for scaring small children.
Stuck in a frumpy rut? Flag down the roadside beautician. She would give you a fresh cut right on the London sidewalks. Talk about speedy service. Admittedly, it lacked on the health code front.
You thought Kim Kardashian invented the contour, huh? Guess again. The trick of enhancing your best angles stretches back to the 16th century! Cosmetic entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein gave the 1935 version to her happy client.
Meet the shower cap’s superior: the shower hood. Basically, you enjoy all the cleansing qualities of bathing while maintaining a full face of makeup. German actress Inge Marschall gave it two thumbs up after she wiped away the mascara melting from her eyes.
For decades, sunlight therapy was used to combat a slew of illnesses, from glumness to tuberculosis. Members of the Arsenal football team were devotees, but the UV rays were used across the medical community, even on children.
If you throw a rock in Finland, you’re likely to bonk a relaxed Finn in a sauna on the head. They are sauna devotees, after all. That’s why this portable version is still manufactured today and is a popular alternative to birthing tubs.
Chuck your serums and hyaluronic acids in the trash. Apparently, milk is the secret salve we’ve searched for. After you finish your milk facial, drink up the rest to strengthen your bones. Or, you know, don’t.
New York in the 1950s hosted 24-hour health salons. If the urge to simmer in a steam cabinet struck at 3 am, you could make that happen. Glamour queens like actress Lola Fisher took full advantage of the never-closing spas.
Nope, not an open audition for magician’s assistants. These gals were working up a sweat in the comfort of massive steam boxes in the government-sponsored spa Roosevelt Baths in 1938.
What’s a twisted neck or two on the journey to sick abs? It’s not a good workout unless it’s incredibly dangerous, that was the 1930’s motto. This popular core machine fell from grace after its users suffered whiplash.
Before the “wet t-shirt” contest could walk, its bashful cousin, the “Neatest Figure” contest had a run. To drive their priorities home, judges put bags over the faces of contestants, successfully concealing their shame.
Don’t let those metal tools scare you. Maree Fox, a beauty therapist, was using ionization to smooth the skin, and it’s a proven method that continues today. This particular device was called the Electric Cathoidermie machine.
State of the art hair dryer or extraterrestrial brain sucker? Either way, the folks at the London Hair and Beauty Fair in 1936 were dazzled by the futuristic design. Standing dryers are undoubtedly less sci-fi influenced in current salons.