We now live in an age where health and safety laws are often seen as having become so all-pervading that they are totally oppressive. But wind back the years and you will soon find out what life was like when nobody gave two hoots for such niceties as product safety and non-toxic ingredients. Take a trip down memory lane and see some of the ludicrously dangerous things our close ancestors considered perfectly okay.
20. Keep the kids radioactive
Yes, this was a real thing, an atomic energy kit for children that included small amounts of uranium ore. The A.C. Gilbert Company’s U-238 Atomic Energy Lab was launched to an unsuspecting public in 1950, priced at $49.50. This was a princely sum for a child’s toy back then, but can you put a price on fun like this? One suggested game was to use the Geiger counter supplied to hunt for previously hidden radioactive material, samples of which were also generously included in the kit – astonishingly.
19. Things went better with coke
To be fair, these tasty cocaine toothache drops were meant for sufferers of all ages. But, as can plainly be seen in this subtle 1885 advertisement, the makers definitely included children as potential users. No doubt the cocaine did wonders for toothache, but may also have turned the patient into a raddled drug fiend if they took enough. Which would be easy enough to do since these more-ish cocaine drops cost a mere 15 cents.
18. Mercury as a medicine
The sexually transmitted disease syphilis is a horrific condition that left untreated can lead to gross disfigurement, madness and ultimately death. Mercury was used as early as the 16th century as a treatment for the condition and the liquid metal’s use continued well into the 20th century. Thankfully, in the 1940s it was discovered that penicillin is a much more effective treatment for the disease, and mercury was dropped.
17. Pop your progeny in the post
A long journey with small offspring can try the patience of the most tolerant parent. And sitting in one spot for hours can turn the most angelic child into a pint-sized demon. But there was once a solution – stick your kid in the mail! And it really did happen in the early days of the U.S. Postal Service’s Parcel Post at the beginning of the 20th century. The practice was encouraged by the fact that postal rates were less expensive than train tickets.
16. Messing with molten metal
It is great to see kids learning a new skill. But any responsible parent would surely draw the line at this hot-ticket item from the 1920s. This play set involved a child heating lead pellets to melting point and then pouring the molten results into molds. The melting point of lead is recorded at 621°F. However, it is not recorded how many children ended up in the emergency room following a session with the Kaster Kit Jr.
15. Put your baby behind bars
Ingenious but insouciant parents who lacked yard space offered another example of questionable childcare practices from the past. If you lived in an apartment with no way for your kid to out into the fresh air, then why not suspend them in a cage hanging out of the window? This bewildered looking infant is hanging off the side of a building in the East End of London in 1934.
14. Revive yourself with a radioactive refreshment
It seems remarkable now, but in the early 20th century a belief in the health benefits of radioactive substances was apparently widespread. One popular beverage of the day was Radithor Certified Radioactive Water. But the Wall Street Journal called time on these drinks in 1932 with the graphic headline, “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off.”
13. A little horse for when you’re feeling a little hoarse
We have Bayer Laboratories to thank for this particular cough medicine. Since the remedy included a generous helping of heroin, if it didn’t actually cure your cough, you would probably be past caring anyway. Our predecessors evidently had a much more relaxed attitude towards powerful narcotics than we do today. In fact, heroin was legal in the U.S. until 1924.
12. Eating for two with a tapeworm
The idea of deliberately ingesting a tapeworm as part of a dieting plan will make most people feel nauseous, to say the least. But apparently some weight-conscious folk used to do exactly that. They believed that, once it lodged itself in their gut, the tapeworm would eat some of the food they consumed. The upside was that the dieter’s total calorie intake was reduced. The downside unfortunately included constipation, malnutrition and headaches. Oh, and these decidedly uncuddly critters can also migrate to the brain, causing death.
11. Using arsenic to alleviate skin problems
At least this 19th-century advertisement from the Middleton Drug Company is upfront about the fact that the product it was promoting contained a deadly ingredient. But the claim that the poison was “perfectly harmless” and rendered “genuinely safe” due to its “French preparation” is a bit hard to swallow. One of the more regrettable potential side effects of arsenic is, of course, death. But at least the corpse would not suffer from muddy skin and moth wrinkles.
10. Not so easily lead
We now regard many of the beautiful automobiles from the 1950s as design classics. That they may well be, but the gas-guzzlers were also deadly because of the toxic lead routinely added to fuel at that time. It took until 1996 for lead to be banned from gas in the U.S. and it is now illegal in the vast majority of countries. If you are desperate for a hit of lead, you will now need to travel to Iraq, Algeria or Yemen – the only territories reported to be still adding the heavy metal to their fuel.
9. Sending children up the chimneys
If you were a chimney sweep in the 18th or 19th centuries, and you came across a flue that was too narrow for you to climb, there was one simple answer. Send a young child up there! In England, kids from the poorest of the poor, aged as young as six, became indentured apprentices to chimney sweeps. This meant that the children had to stick to the job until they were 18. Not that all of the poor kids suffered that long – an all-too-common occupational hazard was death.
8. Suspend your disbelief
In his day, back in the 19th century, Lewis Albert Sayre was considered one of the most eminent orthopedic surgeons in the U.S. Examine some of his methods and you might well thank your lucky stars for the advances made in modern medicine since. Despite appearances, this lady was not in fact involved in some exotic bondage session. Actually, this procedure – under the supervision of the good doctor himself – was supposedly helping to straighten her spine.
7. Facing up to cosmetic changes
What better way to make your skin positively glow with vitality than to apply radioactive face cream? At least that is what people seemed to believe in the early 20th century. After Marie and Pierre Curie had discovered radium, it became all the rage to incorporate the chemical element into all sorts of beauty treatments. These, as we can see from this 1933 French ad, included face cream. Fortunately, cosmetic companies have a rather more cautious attitude towards carcinogenic substances nowadays.
6. Eye opening beauty treatments
In the 19th century, women thought it was a good idea to use an extract from the belladonna plant as eyedrops. Bella donna means beautiful woman in Italian, so using it as a beauty aid makes some kind of sense. Unfortunately, the plant goes by another name – deadly nightshade – so letting it anywhere near your eyes makes no sense at all. In fact, belladonna is one of the most highly poisonous plants in the world. But the toxic eyedrops made the pupils dilate, which was considered a sign of beauty way back when, so some women were prepared to take the risk.
5. Mocking the afflicted for mad laughs
It seems utterly repugnant to modern sensibilities, but at one time a visit to the Bedlam asylum for the insane in London was considered an amusing day out. Properly called the Bethlem Royal Hospital, the institution appeared to have little respect for its inmates from the 16th to the 18th centuries, when tours were encouraged to raise revenue. Although some high-minded individuals claimed a moral purpose in visiting the asylum, there is little doubt that for many this was just the lowest kind of entertainment.
4. What a bloody racket
People believed that bloodletting was a beneficial medical procedure from as early as Ancient Greek times. In the West, the practice continued until as recently as the early 20th century. The practice finally fell out of favor among modern medics, mainly because it was ineffective and risky as a treatment. However, even today, there are those who still firmly believe in bloodletting – in India for example.
3. Deadly douches
Ruthlessly preying on female insecurities about personal hygiene, the makers of Lysol douches unscrupulously peddled dangerous products. In the 1920s, the antiseptic Lysol was sold to women as a vaginal douche which would ward off unwanted odors, infections and even pregnancy. In fact, it turned out that Lysol’s ingredients included poisonous chemicals which caused inflammation, burns and even some deaths.
2. Dying to lose some weight
Even today, there are plenty of quack remedies on the market which promise miracle weight loss to the desperate and vulnerable. But in the 1930s, some dodgey diet pills freely available to the public were actually toxic. These tablets contained the chemical dinitrophenol which prevents food energy from transforming into fat. But the compound also stops people being able to see and can lead to premature death.
1. Hotheaded response to baldness
Men have perhaps always regretted the loss of their hair and down the ages they have desperately sought to halt or even reverse the balding process. But in the 1920s this bizarre gadget, the Thermocap, entailed rather a high level of risk for a baldness remedy. The device plugged into the mains electricity supply before being placed atop the folically challenged man’s head. Blue light and heat would then stimulate hair growth, it was unconvincingly claimed by the manufacturer. Having that much electricity surging around your skull seems more hair raising than hair restoring.
It seems we should be thankful, then, that these old and reckless habits have now died out. But on the flip side, there are many things we consider to be normal today that would have been totally unthinkable in the past.
Imagine for a moment that you went into a coma and woke up 40 years in the future. Of course, there would be certain things that you’d expect to find upon waking. Like, say, jetpacks, flying cars, commercial space travel, a cure for cancer… perhaps even instant noodles which don’t taste like feet. But what you probably wouldn’t consider is how culture might have advanced. Things that are totally unacceptable now, for example, may well be so commonplace in the future as to become utterly mundane. And for people of a certain generation, it’s actually kind of like that now. Because if you measure current trends against the state of play 40 years ago, it becomes obvious just how much the world has changed in a few decades.
20. Dropping the f-bomb
Swearing in general is far more socially acceptable now than it was 40 years ago. But in particular, swearing among women was virtually unheard of in the ’70s. Now, however, women are not only swearing as much as men, but some stats suggest that they might actually be swearing more. In particular, one British study conducted in 2016 revealed that female f-bombs in Britain have increased 500 percent in the past 20 years or so.
19. Get an inking
If you saw someone 40 years ago who was inked or had a nose ring, you pretty much instantly had an idea of their background. Take a walk down the street now, however, and you’ll see people of all walks of life with elaborate piercings, visible tattoos or both. In fact, estimates across the pond suggest that one fifth of the British population is tattooed. And if you look at 16- to 44-year-olds alone, that statistic rises to nearly a third.
18. Having kids outside of wedlock
Imagine walking into a TV show 40 years ago and pitching Gilmore Girls – a show about a single woman with a 16-year-old daughter. You’d have been shouted out of the room. But in recent years, studies have shown that younger couples are having kids out of wedlock far more often. In fact, a 2011 paper revealed that 57 percent of U.S. parents aged between 26 and 31 were having kids without getting hitched.
17. Enjoying casual hook-ups
People have been having casual sex for longer than the term has existed – it’s just that it’s never been socially acceptable. However, with the rise of dating apps such as Tinder, hook-up culture has become far more commonplace. In fact, 49 percent of Britons surveyed in 2014 said that they’d had at least one one-night stand. Meanwhile, 14 percent had had a casual hook-up with someone they met online, and a fifth said they’d slept with someone without first learning their name.
16. Donning a hat indoors
Here’s one you might not have thought about: 40 years ago if you were wearing a hat indoors, it was probably a Yamaka. Otherwise, you were being very rude indeed. But in this modern world of snapbacks, beanies and everything in between, wearing a hat indoors is far less questionable. There are, however, still places where you probably shouldn’t do it – churches, dinner parties or basically anywhere you have to dress formally. But outside of that, you’re unlikely to run into much trouble.
15. Airing your dirty laundry in public
It wasn’t necessarily that privacy was much more sacred 40 years ago. People were, however, definitely much less likely to have it out in public. There’s another side to it, though. We’re still very much in the developmental stage of social media, and many still use it to address their various personal grievances in a very public arena. It’s little wonder, then, that in 2014 “overshare” was Chambers Dictionary’s word of the year.
14. Watching pornography
There was plenty of porn around in the 1970s, but now it’s everywhere. And while you can’t exactly sit down and openly discuss it with your friends and family, the stigma around it has certainly faded. For example, a 2008 study conducted in U.S. college campuses showed that 87 percent of men and 31 percent of women aged between 18 and 36 had viewed pornographic material at some stage. It’s a hard statistic to gauge accurately, however, since many people simply won’t admit to their viewing preferences. There’s no doubt, though, that younger people are gradually becoming more open about porn.
13. Musical profanity
In 1968 the MPAA ban on swearing in films was lifted, which meant that even 40 years ago films were pretty profane. Music, however, was an entirely different story. Back in the ’70s and ’80s you’d get the odd racy number – but no actual swearing. But with the arrival of rap music, that all changed. Now, basically all genres of music have the potential for swearing, not only in the lyrics but even in song titles. In fact, some 25 percent of 2016’s top 40 singles on iTunes were labeled as explicit.
12. Become a stay-at-home dad
While the “man of the house” trope wasn’t as ubiquitous in a ’70s as it was ten or 20 years before, the idea of the father of the household staying at home while the mother worked certainly hadn’t caught on. And while it’s far from the norm now, it’s definitely on the up. In 2012, for instance, The Pew Research Center recorded that in the U.S., the number of fathers who didn’t work outside the house had reached two million.
11. Blurring the gender boundaries
Transgender, cisgender, gender fluid: these are all terms that would likely receive a resounding “what?” if you used them 40 years ago. Now, however, they’re slowly sliding into common parlance. Transphobia is still a massive issue, of course, but society has generally become far more accepting. In fact, after Caitlyn Jenner went public as a trans woman, NBC found that almost half of Americans believed that views on transgender people would only continue to improve.
10. Keeping your maiden name
At one point, taking your husband’s name was a fundamental and virtually unavoidable part of getting married. But over the past few decades, keeping your maiden name has become far more common. In 2015, for example, a survey in the U.S. revealed that 20 percent of recently married women had kept their maiden names, while a further 10 percent had opted to double-barrel.
9. Violence on TV
Sure, films were plenty violent in the 1970s, but TV was a different affair altogether. Yes, you might have got the odd crime scene or even murder scene – but little else beyond that. Needless to say, a show with as much brutal violence as Game of Thrones, True Detective or Breaking Bad would have never made it past censors. In fact, a 2013 study revealed that even among the teen-rated shows, violent content was now very much the rule, not the exception.
8. LGBTQ couples getting hitched
Four decades ago there was still plenty of stigma around being gay. And as a LGBTQ couple what you sure as hell couldn’t do was get married – although people did try. But in the last decade, more and more countries have taken steps to legalize same-sex marriage, either nationally or state-by-state. And now, it’s effectively legal in most of the U.S., U.K., Canada and 17 other countries.
7. Mixed-race relationships
In the U.S., all race-based restrictions on marriage were lifted in 1967, but it still took a while after that for society to become truly accepting of mixed-race couples and families. In fact, it’s only recently that we’ve started to see mixed-race families depicted on TV and film. For instance, in the U.S. and U.K., 2016 saw the release of Loving and A United Kingdom, respectively, two films that deal with the issue very directly.
6. Women in combat
It wasn’t even that long ago that women couldn’t join the army at all. But now, at least in Western nations, females have as much of a right to fight for their country as men do. In 2013, for example, the U.S. lifted a policy that prohibited women from joining units that went into combat. And while there are still a few combat roles that women can’t take on, it’s certainly a lot more even-handed than it was even five years ago, never mind 40.
5. Put your underwear on show
Difficult as it might be to believe, there was a time when a stray bra-strap would be an immense source of embarrassment. And yet now, some tops and dresses are actually designed so that the bra straps beneath are visible. Thong and G-string underwear became more popular in the ’80s, too, and by the early 2000s, low-cut jeans made to show the top of a G-string were all the rage. A 2007 survey, meanwhile, showed that 77 percent of women were more than happy to have parts of their underwear on display.
4. Smoking a joint
Weed wasn’t exactly unpopular in the 1970s, but the general societal attitude toward it was still fairly negative. For example, in 1978 a study found that 72 percent of Americans would not approve of a more lenient national attitude toward weed. And yet now, with weed becoming medically legal across more and more of the world, people seem a lot more chill about it. In fact, even President Obama has openly admitted to having lit up. Just imagine if Nixon had done the same.
3. Calling someone after 9:00 p.m. without enraging them
Forty years ago, before the days of iPhones and FaceTime, calling someone late was an epic faux pas. Today, though, you can sometimes pick up the phone after 9:00 p.m. without incurring wrath from the other end. A 2010 survey, for instance, revealed that 64 percent of people aged 16 to 24 think it’s fine to call someone on their mobile late at night. Provided, that is, they’re a friend or family member.
2. Breastfeed in public
Some people still get up in arms about breastfeeding. Generally speaking, however, the attitude is far more relaxed than it was four decades ago. Mind you, things actually started moving in the right direction in the U.K. in 1975, when the Sex Discrimination Act allowed breastfeeding in public. But it wasn’t until 2010 that breastfeeding women were legally protected from discrimination from businesses. Now, trying to prevent a woman in Britain from breastfeeding a child under two could land you a hefty fine. And that is on top of just looking like a complete jerk.
1. Get a wax
Bikini waxing has been around much longer than 40 years. But back in the ’70s, the “all natural” look was very in, for men and women. And for this reason, the idea of a man not only waxing, but also waxing off all of his chest hair? Ridiculous, unless you were a body builder. The number of men opting to go hairless is still in the minority today, but it’s become much more popular. In fact, male grooming is now a billion-dollar industry, and there’s certainly a lot less stigma around it. Hairy chests, however, are making a bit of a comeback, thanks to the lumbersexual movement. But today, it’s much more about style than acceptability.