Products That Were Really Uncomfortable

Here are some products you'll be thankful have come a long way!

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Some seemingly ordinary products had incredibly strange and uncomfortable beginnings. From treacherous toothbrushes to the peculiar reason Australians used to sit inside whale carcasses, let's discover products you’ll be thankful have come a long way!

Slept Like a Rock

If there’s one item you definitely want to be comfortable, it has to be your pillow. After all, we spend an average of 33-years in bed over our lifetimes, so a good pillow is a worthwhile investment. However, it seems our ancestors weren’t all too bothered about comfort.

The original pillows were nothing else but shabby slabs of concrete and they had little to do with softness. In a practical sense, they were used to elevate the head, as to keep critters from having a party in the ears, nose, and mouth.

purpose of pillow

The earliest dates back to 7,000 BC, in early Mesopotamia, and only the wealthy would have the privilege of resting their heads on this luxurious rock.

The same idea was adopted by the Egyptians, except theirs were mostly made from materials such as wood and ivory. Images of gods would also be carved into the pillows, to ward off bad spirits because everyone knows hellish demons are no match for adequate neck support!

pillow to ward off bad spirits

Eventually, the Greeks and Romans saw sense, as they stuffed cloth with materials such as cotton, reeds, and straw, fashioning what we modern folk might consider a pillow. However, due to the nature of these materials, none have stood the test-of-time, though artwork and sculptures depict the soft furnishing they would lounge around on.

Venus Victrix by Antonio Canova, 1805-1808, marble - Galleria Borghese - Rome, Italy - DSC04970
Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It wouldn’t be until the 19th century, during the Victorian era, that pillows would become common in every home. Thanks to the industrial revolution, pillows could now be made en-masse from comfortable cotton material, and polyester later in the 20th century, making them more affordable than ever.

Whale of a Time

We now live in a time where many of our aches and pains are nothing a quick trip to the drugstore can’t alleviate. And with statistics showing 72 million Americans complain of back-pain in particular, it’s just as well that we have a variety of lotions and potions to relieve our achy-breaky backs.

Products like Icy Hot can temporarily relieve aches and pains by making the skin feel cool and then warm, which distracts from the aching sensation. But what did people do for achy backs and joints before innovations like this?

As with many a great tale, this one starts with drunken shenanigans. During the 1890s, a group of Australian men, from the whaling town of Eden, were having a whale of a time drinking on the beach when they crossed paths with a dead, beached whale.

For reasons that remain unknown, one of them proceeded to willingly plunge himself into a decayed hole in the whale and didn’t re-emerge for quite some time.

Products That Were Really Uncomfortable

When he finally did resurface, in a peculiar turn of events, he professed how his stint in the stale whale had performed ‘miracles,’ miracles that had cured him of his arthritis. And with that, it wasn’t long until the ached and pained hobbled from far and wide to the town of Eden to claim their dose of dead whale.

Whales began being specifically hunted to be used for this purpose, and had holes cut into them, where patients would be plopped in. The longer they spent inside, the better, as some would stew in the stinky carcass for up to 30 hours!

whale carcass medication

And all because of some drunk man’s delusions? Oddly enough, there may be some merit to this utterly bizarre practice. Part of the reason Icy Hot, or a hot bath, relieves aches is due to the heat. Heat encourages blood circulation, which in turn loosens muscles and provides them with oxygen and nutrients that can aid healing.

In fact, a 2018 study found that regular dry sauna bathing can be quite beneficial to people suffering from rheumatic diseases, such as arthritis.

Therefore, the heat generated inside the well-insulated, decomposing whale surrounding participants’ bodies likely worked in a similar way; relaxing tense muscles and encouraging the body’s natural relief and healing processes!

whale pain relief element

Extra Spicy Energy

Whether you’re after a quick pick-me-up or just enjoy the sensation of a gurgling gut, energy drinks have got your back. Their high caffeine content can increase alertness, but consuming over the recommended 400 milligrams of caffeine can result in some pretty nasty side-effects, including irregular heartbeat, seizures, and in rare cases, death!

But that’s pretty tame considering the original energy drink pretty much guaranteed death! The idea of an energizing drink has been around for millennia, if you consider that Roman charioteers would grind down goat poop and boil it with vinegar for a tasty boost of energy. Whether that actually works or not, I’ll let you experiment to find out.

roman energy drink

But the real beginning of boost-juice was in 1918, when American inventor and salesman, William Bailey, created a concoction called ‘RadiThor’. Not only could his miracle formula boost your energy, but it could allegedly heal many ailments, including impotence.

But what was this miracle formula? It was simply radium dissolved in water. Indeed, radium, the radioactive element that causes anemia, cataracts, and cancer, and slowly deteriorates human bones after long exposure.

The chemical element is, however, naturally occurring on Earth, so a little exposure to it isn’t exactly lethal. However, guzzling the stuff by the bottle ultimately is. But that wasn’t to stop Bailey, who, unaware of the long-term effects, ironically believed the power of Radium’s alpha particles would aid people suffering from anemia, cancer, depression, among many other diseases.

In 1927, Eben Byers injured his arm and was recommended RadiThor by the doctor. Before long, he was hooked and swigging as many as 2 bottles a day, believing it gave him a ‘toned-up feeling’.

drinking radithor

In 1930 he put an end to his 3-year-long binge, but having already knocked-back around 1,400 bottles, the damage was done.

The radium had caused him to develop bone cancer, which resulted in his teeth and bones slowly deteriorating, so much so, he even lost half of his jaw and a developed holes in his skull.

eben byers illness

In 1932, at age 51, that RadiThor habit spelled bye-bye for Eben Byers, just like countless others who bought into this lethal pseudoscience. So, all things considered, the high levels of caffeine, sugar, and taurine in modern energy drinks aren’t so bad.

Wigs For Eyebrows

Styles keep-a-changin’, but surprisingly, humans’ pursuit of beauty is rooted less in vanity, and more in evolution. We’re evolved to desire a potential mate, and to find ways of maximizing our chances.

In order to indicate health and fertility, we’ve had a helping hand from cosmetics for around 6,000 years, since the ancient Egyptians. And like many women today, our ancient Egyptian pals were quite religious about their brows. Literally. Men and women would elongate their brows with carbon and black oxide as an homage to the God Horus.

Horus (God)
Eternal Space, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But over the millennia, eyebrows became more purely a fashion statement, and with the invention of the eyebrow pencil in the 1920s, people have only got more creative. But great brows haven’t been so easily attainable for all of the more industrialized periods of history. At one time you had to hunt for your makeup.

Back in the 18th century, citizens of Georgian Britain believed the bushier the brow, the fairer the maiden. So they devised a fool-proof way to guarantee big brows every time. All you needed to do was catch a mouse, skin it, carve eyebrow shapes out of its hide and stick them onto your brow and bam. You’re looking hot-to-trot!

mouse eyebrows

In fact, Irish writer Jonathan Swift, wrote in a 1731 ode:

‘Her eyebrows from a mouse’s hide. Stuck on with art on either side’.

However, those less concerned by their eyebrow bushiness could simply burn the end of a clove, making for a great eyebrow pencil. Plus, it meant that you didn’t have to walk around with dead mouse on your face.

eyebrows

The Green Monster

A house isn’t a home without its own unique identity. In fact, archeologists believe that even cavemen 5,000 years ago painted inside their caves to brighten up the place, using ground-up minerals and rocks held together with spit or animal fat.

Wallpaper, meanwhile, can be dated back to 200 BC, when the ancient Chinese would glue rice paper to their walls. But no one was to expect that some innocent interior design could become a deadly killer.

Thanks to the industrial revolution, the public of Victorian England were able to embrace the idea of ‘home’, and houses transformed into treasure-troves of trinkets and elaborate décor. But, hidden among all this clutter, a deadly green monster lurked: the ‘Scheele’s Green’.

Scheele’s Green

In 1775, Swedish Chemist, Carl Scheele created a vivid shade of green pigment – one that he would name after himself, no less. This green beast would eventually wade the waters over to Victorian England, where it would be used in wallpaper manufacturing, notably by famous textile designer, William Morris.

Only, Scheele’s green had a secret ingredient: arsenic. It’s now common knowledge that arsenic is one of the most toxic elements derived from the natural world, and while we’d like to think the Victorians were oblivious to this, they kinda knew. Their thinking was, as long as no one ate the wallpaper, then everything would be hunky-dory, right? How wrong they were.

The truth was, moisture and contact would release deadly vapors from the wallpaper, meaning the toxins would be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Over a short period of time, arsenic poisoning may entail vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

short-term arsenic poisoning

But through long-term exposure to it, such as having it decked out all over your home, the consequences can include patchy, darkened skin, heart disease, and various cancers.

So, it was only a matter of time before many a lady and gent would pop-their-clogs, thanks to arsenic poisoning, all on account of their home décor! This truly made Scheele’s Green a color to die for. But even with all these fatalities, notable textile producers continued to use it until around 1880.

Thankfully, modern day green pigments tend to be made from non-toxic ingredients, such as malachite, cobalt oxide, and zinc oxide, meaning the wallpaper grass really is greener here in the modern day. And less likely to kill you.

modern safe green paint

Dead Man’s Dentures

It’s no secret that a gleaming grin can increase a person’s attractiveness. In fact, some even liken our teeth to a peacock’s tail: a sign of health and genetic quality used to capture the attention of a potential mate. And while modern dentistry can easily replace a missing tooth, in days gone by people would beg, borrow, and steal.

Due to the increasing popularity of sugar during the 18th century, wealthy Europeans and Americans began indulging in more sweet-treats. This newfound sugar-rush came with some bitter consequences, as instances of tooth decay began to rapidly increase. Ivory dentures seemed like the solution, except these would eventually rot too.

ivory dentures

In fact, there’s a common myth that George Washington wore wooden dentures, which were also a thing, but the more likely truth is, he actually had ivory dentures that were so stained, they looked wooden.

So, without a suitable substitute, people got to thinking: what better to replace teeth with than with real teeth?

This mentality was on show after 50,000 young and healthy men died in the 1815 battle of Waterloo, in Belgium, leaving behind pearly-whites ready for the taking. So, with plyers in hand, people reportedly scoured the battlefields, pulling the teeth to cast into ivory molds.

dead people's teeth

Unfortunately, though, the ivory would still rot eventually. What’s more, these dentures were expensive, took up to 6 weeks to make, and were made to be ‘one-size-fits-all’. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that one size does not fit all, meaning most dentures were incredibly uncomfortable to wear.

Later down the line, in the 1840s, a type of rubber known as vulcanite started to be used. This material made the dentures much easier to eat with, more comfortable, and much more durable, meaning they could last a whole lifetime.

vulcanite

But regardless of physical comfort, there was still the revolting reality that folks were often chomping down with random dead folks’ teeth. Fortunately, modern-day dentures are made from acrylic and porcelain, which are pretty good dupes for teeth.

Tough Brush

Nowadays, we can counteract some of the rotting effects of our disgracefully high-sugar diets thanks to the high-quality toothpaste and toothbrushes we have available. But to whom do we owe the pleasure for the dental hygiene gift that is the simple toothbrush?

The earliest form of toothbrush can actually be dated back to 3,500 BC in the ancient city of Babylon. The Babylonians would use something called a chewstick, which was a twig, usually from an aromatic tree, frayed on one end and used for brushing.

But it seems the earliest modern-style toothbrush was, like many modern-day equivalents, ‘made in China’. Created within the Chinese Tang Dynasty sometime between 618 and 907 CE, the brush fundamentally resembled the modern toothbrush, except the handle was made from bone or bamboo, and the bristles were the course hairs of wild hogs.

Products That Were Really Uncomfortable

The Chinese had also devised their own idea of toothpaste, by brewing Poria fungus into an abrasive paste. Fast-forward to 1770, Englishman William Addis was imprisoned for inciting a riot in London. And I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘what has this got to do with toothbrushes?’

While incarcerated, Addis grew tired of having to clean his teeth with a rag and charcoal. So, he fashioned his own brush with a bone from his meals and some bristles of boar hair, which he somehow acquired from one of the guards.

After his release in 1780, William founded the Addis Company, where he developed his toothbrush idea, and sold a version with bristles made of horsehair, to huge success.

addis toothbrush

Much later, in the 1930s, nylon was invented, which proved a much more suitable and hygienic bristle alternative to hog and horsehair. Along with the addition of a plastic handle, and the occasional handful of waterproof electronics, nylon bristles are still used today.

But if you’ve got a hankering for the true vintage experience, just swap your plastic toothbrush for a broomstick!

Burn, Baby Burn

One of the most essential products we have for our well-being is sunscreen. While the sun is a great source of vitamin D, which aids bones, teeth, and muscles, its harmful ultraviolet rays can not only cause sunburn, but skin cancer.

Sunscreen can prevent this by creating a protective barrier on the skin that blocks and reflects the UV rays. And while it’s a modern-day staple, sunscreen wasn’t officially invented until 1946. Before that, people had some pretty interesting ideas about protecting skin from the sun.

sunscreen protection

Egypt is a pretty hot place, so it’s no surprise that like most things, the ancient Egyptians had a solution for sun damage. They would douse their skin with extracts from rice bran, jasmine, and lupine, which are actually effective ingredients still used in modern-day sunscreens.

Despite the genius of our ancient Egyptian predecessors, a not-so-smart idea for sun protection came about during the 1920s. The image below isn’t the first face-transplant; it is a swimming mask designed to protect the whole head from sun damage.

Full face swimming mask from 1928

Egg Heads

With modern shampoo having only been around for 90 or so years, people before-hand had some pretty uncomfortable methods in keeping their mops looking tip-top. During the Middle Ages, daily bathing was regarded as somewhat of an oddity. In fact, some even considered it unhealthy.

But, nevertheless, on the occasion bathing did occur, women still attempted haircare, and they’d use some bizarre concoctions. A popular ingredient was vinegar, and while it hardly smells like a fresh meadow, it has since been scientifically proven to enhance hair’s strength and shine.

During the renaissance, Italian women would use lye soap to wash their hair, but, bizarrely, condition it afterwards with bacon fat to give it a lustrous shine. Meaning they probably looked more like Danny Zuko than a fair maiden.

Italian women haircare

Fast forward to 19th century America, where another unique approach to haircare emerged. Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American women’s magazine, actually recommended that women routinely crack an egg on their head at least once a month.

They’d lather the gooeyness into their scalp and then simply rinse it out with water. Sounds crazy but their eggy approach was no yolk after all.

egg on head

Eggs are full of nutrients, namely B vitamins, as well as vitamins A and D, which all just so happen to be extremely beneficial for hair. So, infusing your follicles with some eggy goodness can actually promote stronger hair, less prone to damage.

I don’t know about you, but all this talk of eggs and bacon is making me hungry!

eggs and bacons

These days, shampoo contains more manufactured chemicals than it does breakfast ingredients, typically made from compounds like sodium lauryl sulfate and cocamidopropyl betaine. However, these new ingredients may give you volume and shine, but they do not make for a good sandwich.

Homemade Mouthwash

A quick Google search may lead you to believe that mouthwash was first created in 1879 by Dr Joseph Lawrence. But the truth is that the stuff has been around for thousands of years in various forms, and has a much more disturbing origin.

In fact, the ancient Romans would argue that we all have our own personal fountain of mouthwash. If you take a gander at the ingredients in your cleaning supplies, you’ll see a commonality: ammonia. It’s able to neutralize dirt and grease which are slightly acidic, making it an effective component to remove stains. You know what else contains ammonia? Pee.

In a land before disinfectant and detergent, the Romans took full advantage of the yellow stuff. So much so that they would even place jars on streets so that people could so kindly come and leak their loyalties.

romans peeing

These containers would then be taken to the fullonica, a.k.a. the laundrette, and poured over dirty clothes, where some unfortunate worker would splash around in the town’s collective piddle to clean the clothes.

But what’s all this got to do with mouthwash? As if it wasn’t bad enough that their clothes were saturated with urine, they figured urine might also be an effective way to brighten their smile. So, Romans regularly knocked back the wazz and swilled it between their cheeks.

As to whether it’s a suitable replacement for Listerine or not, well, it might be, to an extent. Ammonia is an effective bleaching agent, and since your pee is filled with the stuff, it could trigger some whitening over time.

romans pee mouthwash

These days, mouthwash thankfully includes no bodily fluids, nor any of the harmful bacteria found in urine, just menthol, eucalyptol, thymol, and alcohol. Even so, the same is true now as it was in the Roman pee-swilling times: don’t swallow your mouthwash.

Odd Socks

Socks may seem fairly insignificant, but in reality, they not only protect your feet from blistering, but provide the ideal environment for your footsies by aiding temperature and moisture control.

Not just that, but research suggests they’re potentially the oldest form of human clothing, as they’re thought to have existed in the stone age, long before short-skirts and t-shirts. But back then, socks were quite different from the stretchy nylon variety we wear today.

While no full stone-age socks remain today, fabric fragments and archeologists’ interpretations of cave paintings suggest that these ancient folks likely wore animal skins wrapped around their feet for protection on rough surfaces.

ancient socks

In 2010, researchers found more solid evidence of what is believed to be the oldest known shoe. Discovered in an Armenian cave, the 5,500-year-old shoe is around a US size 7 and is made from a single piece of cowhide, laced with a leather cord.

Given its lack of a sole, it’s pretty sock-like in itself, but if we fast forward to the ancient Egyptian era, we can see the first true prototype of the modern sock, as recreated in the pair below, found in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

weird egyptian socks from the victoria and albert museum
David Jackson, CC BY-SA 2.0 UK, via Wikimedia Commons

Socks seemed to be quite popular in ancient Egypt and would be worn by all ages, and with an array of colors and patterns. You might notice that they have a weird split in the middle, and that’s not because Egyptians’ feet hadn’t yet evolved from their dinosaur ancestors.

The real reason for this split is actually much worse, Egyptians would wear socks with sandals! Someone call the time-travel fashion police! I’m sorry Ancient Egyptians, but when the cost of comfort is that high, you’ve gotta ask yourself if it’s really worth it.

Egyptian feet

If you enjoyed investigating products that have come a long way, you might want to read this article about products that were intented for very different purposes. You might also want to read about items people used in the past you'd never want to try. Thanks for reading!

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