18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things

Larry Holzwarth - October 19, 2018

What seems to be a great idea at the time all too often turns out to be the opposite after evidence accumulated over time is evaluated. Lead was once used in numerous consumer products and those used in construction, especially the plumbing industry, before the cumulative negative effects of exposure were fully understood. Asbestos was considered a miracle fiber, used in literally hundreds of products, in numerous industries, and for widely diverse reasons. These items are far from alone, materials and products later known to be harmful were in use for decades, even centuries, before they were recognized as doing often irreparable harm.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
Americans used hundreds of patent medicines, many of which were dangerous, including Boston Drug’s cure for drunkenness, which included alcohol. Wikimedia

Harmful products have been introduced into the food chain, the atmosphere, the water tables, and even in clothing and furniture. For decades automobiles ran on heavily leaded gasoline (to prevent knocking) and were stopped by asbestos laced brake shoes. Often their forward motion relied on an asbestos lined clutch disk. People driving in heavy traffic were exposed to lead fumes in the combined exhausts of the traffic, as well as asbestos fibers in the air. Both were initially introduced as ideas to make living easier and more convenient, an idea which gradually was found to be erroneous. Over the counter medications were laced with narcotics, often blended with alcohol, including children’s medications. All too many modern conveniences found themselves to be far less than convenient, especially when it became time to dispose of them.

Here are examples of dangerous materials or practices and their former uses in everyday life before their harmfulness became known.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
The ancient Romans moved water vast distances via aqueducts, and noted the poorer quality of water delivered through lead pipes and taps. Wikimedia

1. Lead in drinking water was known by the Ancient Romans to be dangerous

During the days of the Roman Republic, an engineer by the name of Vitruvius opined to Julius Caesar that water drawn from terra cotta vessels and pipes was more healthful than water dispensed via lead pipes, “made injurious by lead, because white lead is produced by it, and this is said to be harmful to the human body”. The Romans drew water from their reservoirs through lead pipes, often equipped with lead taps, into vessels frequently made from or containing lead, in which it was sometimes boiled in the preparation of certain dishes. The dense but easily worked metal found numerous uses in industry and construction, and by the mid-twentieth century the average house contained large amounts of the toxic metal, often in unsuspected areas.

One area in which it was prevalent in American homes was in the plumbing systems. The widespread use of copper pipes connected by sweating pieces of pipe together using a lead based solder was commonplace despite the known dangers of the metal for decades, the belief being that the relatively small exposure of water to the solder minimized the risk. Alloys of brass and bronze, often used in water fittings, also contained lead, and household plumbing systems were once maajor contributor of lead into drinking water. In 1986 the EPA and Congress took action to severely limit the amount of lead in products used as part of plumbing systems, but many older houses still contain plumbing systems which introduce dangerous amounts of lead into the drinking water consumed by their occupants.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
Durch Boy was a popular brand of lead based interior paints in the United States well into the 1970s, when they were finally banned. Wikimedia

2. Lead paint contributed to depression and other illnesses

Lead has for centuries been used as a component in paints, both for the decoration and protection of buildings and structures and in the production of fine art. Lead contributes not only to the vividness of some colors and their contrast with others, but also to the durability of the paint, making it attractive to artists in their work. Lead based paints for commercial use in America were introduced during the industrial revolution, a time when nearly all house-painting was done by professional painters, rather than the homeowner. Along with the introduction of lead based paints came a steady increase of lead-related disorders, especially among children. Nonetheless, lead-based paints were touted through the mid-twentieth century as superior to all others, for consistency of color, durability, and ease of application, all of which were true assets of the compound’s use.

Unfortunately, it also was possessed naturally of a sweet taste, which was particularly appealing to children, and its use on buildings and in many cases toys and furniture lead to children consuming lead paints at an alarming rate, with a corresponding increase in lead related disorders. Australia recognized the link between lead paints and childhood disorders in 1897, several European countries banned lead based interior paints in 1909, the League of Nations followed by banning them in 1922. In the United States, the industry used its influence with Congress (spelled m-o-n-e-y) to continue to manufacture lead based interior paints until they were partially banned in 1971, and fully banned in 1978 (for interior use in houses and residential facilities).

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
By the early 1970s new American cars could only use unleaded gasoline, though leaded remained available at the pump for many years. Wikimedia

3. Leaded gasoline in the United States created high levels of lead in the food supply

In the 1920s, as the internal combustion engine began to require greater levels of power to move the increasingly heavy automobiles being produced at the higher rates of speed demanded by an enthusiastic motoring public, engineers at Dayton Engineering Laboratories in Ohio arrived at a novel solution. Though lead was known to be a poison and its dangers were well documented, its addition to gasoline to increase octane levels and decrease engine knock began in 1923 and continued for over fifty years. The result was toxic levels of lead in the atmosphere, which leached into agricultural soil and the water supply. By the 1950s the neurotoxin was prevalent everywhere, yet Americans continued to blithely pump lead into the environment, reassured by studies which declared the additive to be harmless, nearly all of which were funded by General Motors, owner of the company which manufactured it.

In the 1970s actions to clean up the environment led to the removal of leaded gasoline, though some aviation fuels continue to use it, and all gasoline available at the pump became lead free. Forty years later excessive amounts of lead were still present in many soil surveys, though they have been reduced. Social scientists and criminologists also noted a decrease in violent crime of all types, a trend which began about two decades following the removal of lead from gasoline. Tetraethyl lead, (TEL) was patented and sold to gasoline producers for more than fifty years despite the same benefits being available from ethyl alcohol, which could be distilled from plant waste and did not present the same risks as those posed from lead. Leaded gasoline was a fact of life for half a century, and its effects continue to be felt.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
Abraham Lincoln relied in blue mass, which contained mercury, though his exact reasons for taking it remain debated by scholars. Library of Congress

4. Blue mass was a toxic medication used to treat many conditions

During the 19th century, a common medication available from doctors and pharmacists was blue mass. Abraham Lincoln used blue mass to treat his chronic constipation, which may have accounted for his periods of what he and his contemporaries referred to as melancholy. Blue mass was available as either a pill or a syrup, and was recommended for numerous complaints in addition to those suffered by Lincoln, including toothache, labor pains, headache, worms, depression and what was then referred to as vapors. It was also recommended for menstrual cramps. The main ingredient in blue mass was mercury, a substance known for its toxicity, which was also favored by medical professionals as the preferred treatment for syphilis, as well as for teething pain in infants.

There was no specific mixture for the preparation of blue mass. Each pharmacist, chemist, or doctor prepared his own in accordance with his own needs and those of his customers or patients. Most makers of the substance used about one third mercury, with the rest of the compound being flavorings and binders. Licorice, itself often toxic at the time due to arsenic, was a common flavoring when it was made as a syrup. A typical dose of blue mass contained more than 100 times the amount of mercury which is labeled as a toxic level by the Environmental Protection Agency, and it is likely that Lincoln took several doses per day while living in the White House, according to statements by his wife and several friends. Blue mass was just one of several medications which contained mercury in use well into the twentieth century.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
The use of asbestos in construction was proudly touted as a sign of modern techniques and high quality for decades. Wikimedia

5. Asbestos was meant to make homes and appliances safer

As early as the 1930s, the dangers of exposure to asbestos fibers which were uncontained were well known within the asbestos industry, the United States Navy and shipbuilding industry, and within the construction industry. Asbestos which is contained, for example covered with paint, is harmless. Uncontained it is deadly. The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure, and it is also known to cause other forms of lung cancer. For most of the twentieth century it was widely used in home construction, and remains present in many older homes in some form or another. It was also widely used in automobiles, trucks, and buses, from which asbestos particles were released into the atmosphere for several decades.

Asbestos was and is used in brakes, where it was a preferred material due to its heat resistance. Woven brake linings were invented by Arthur Raymond and his partner in 1906, manufactured from asbestos fiber, and led to his subsequent company being named Raybestos. Clutches and gaskets were also among the times manufactured from asbestos, and its valued properties as an insulator led to its being installed for both comfort control and sound dampening, including in headliners and door insulation. Exposure to asbestos from the wear of mechanical components was common for decades, though mechanics and hobbyists who worked on their own vehicles were at greater risk than the average driver. Brake dust within wheels and hubcaps nearly always contained asbestos, to which someone washing the vehicle was exposed.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
By the 1950s it was virtually impossible to find a building under construction in which asbestos was not used in multiple applications. Wikimedia

6. Asbestos is still used in construction in the United States

Although its use is banned in most developed countries, asbestos is not completely banned in the United States, and is still used in some construction materials, including cement asbestos pipes. Buildings erected prior to 1990 are likely to have some asbestos containing materials within, and those built before the 1970s are likely to have several, unless they were removed during renovation or remodeling. Asbestos use in homes was widespread, one Australian manufacturer listed 54 different products featuring asbestos for use in home construction and furnishing. As recently as 1999 some manufacturers of stippling products used to produce a decorative effect on ceilings continued to use asbestos.

Floor and ceiling tiles were manufactured using asbestos, as were insulation materials, drywall, plaster, roof shingles, numerous adhesives and sealants, acoustic tiles (such as popcorn tiles), filters, sound isolation materials, texturing compounds, and heating and ventilation insulation. These are materials for the construction of a home, many of the furnishings and mechanical equipment within a home built before the 1990s also contained asbestos. At one time, the artificial snow used for Christmas decorations was manufactured with materials containing asbestos, sold to the consumer under the brand names of Pure White and White Magic. In the 1960s, Kent brand cigarettes offered a filter which it called “micronite”, which contained asbestos to shield the smoker from the heat of the lighted cigarette, said to have a detrimental effect on taste.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
The builders of this 1919 model stove were particularly proud of its heavy asbestos lining, which helped it retain even heat distribution. Wikimedia

7. Asbestos was common in appliances large and small

The superior heat protection properties of asbestos made it the go to insulating material for nearly all household appliances where shielding from a heat source was required. Water heaters contained asbestos insulation. So did clothes dryers, both gas and electric, ovens and range tops and frequently, insulated counter tops. Furnaces and other heaters, such as electric baseboard heaters and many portable space heaters, were insulated with asbestos. The use of the material led to it being present in some form or another in virtually every room of a house or other type of building, including schools and hospitals, office buildings, stores of all kinds, and virtually any other type of structure. The collapse of the World Trade Center towers, which were built between 1968 and 1973, released more than 1,000 tons of asbestos into Manhattan’s atmosphere in the form of dust.

It was also present in small appliances which utilized a heat source, such as hotplates, electric griddles and skillets, coffee makers and electric tea kettles, toasters and toaster ovens, rotisseries, waffle makers, and slow cookers. Asbestos could be found in hair dryers, heating pads, sterilizers, and in some cases electric blankets and towel warmers. Electric irons used the substances to isolate their handles from the heating element. It was also used as an insulating material in refrigerators and freezers. It has since been replaced with other insulating materials, but in older appliances, especially those found in antique stores and flea markets, it is likely present. In many instances the original marketing materials and advertising boasted of its use as a sign of superior quality.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
When pans coated with non-stick Teflon first appeared they changed cookery for a time, though their potential dangers later became known. Wikimedia

8. Non-stick cookware presents a significant health risk to some

Polytetraflouroethylene (PTFE) was discovered by the chemists at DuPont in 1938, and was originally marketed to consumers as a non-stick coating for pots and pans under the name of Teflon. It is also used as a lubricant and in applications where a low friction coefficient is needed; it has one of the lowest of any known substance. As with several modern inventions, it was discovered accidentally during attempts to create another item, in the case of PTFE a new refrigerant. It was used during the Manhattan Project as a coating for valves. In the 1950s it was marketed in pans under the brand Tefal, and in the United States it was marketed under the brand “Happy Pan” beginning in 1961. Throughout the 1960s the use of Teflon coated pans expanded, and products made to be used with the pans emerged which protected the coated surface from scratching. The word Teflon came to be applied to anything to which something cannot stick, particularly scandal or criminal charges, as in the Teflon Don being used to refer to John Gotti.

PTFE begins to breakdown as temperatures approach about 500 hundred degrees Fahrenheit, releasing toxic gases into the air. The gases have been known to be lethal to birds, and continued exposure can result in humans developing symptoms similar to flu, including fever, nausea, and a severe aches and pains. Since nearly all cooking oils scorch at lower temperatures and meats are usually cooked at 450 or lower, exposure to the fumes is avoidable when using range tops, though some self-heating pans and most ovens/broilers can exceed the 500 degree limit. The illness caused by Teflon is known as Polymer Fume Fever by medical professionals and can result in permanent lung injury if exposure is prolonged.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
Toothache and teething pain could be instantly alleviated through the use of Lloyd Manufacturing’s Cocaine Toothache Drops. Wikimedia

9. Patent medicines were often toxic

In many ways the compounds which came to be known as patent medicines gave birth to the modern advertising industry, introducing techniques still in use, such as implying government approval and the support of medical doctors for a product. People relied on daily tonics for increased vigor throughout the day, often getting it from a combination of narcotics and alcohol. Another popular patent medicine was irradiated water, which contained traces of radium and was marketed as Radithor, a cure for everything from headaches to diabetes. At least one known death is traceable to consumption of Radithor, which was a popular medicine and tonic for well over a decade after it was introduced in 1918. Its creator became quite wealthy from its sales.

With no government intervention and little self-regulation, the patent medicine business foisted upon the public nostrums and devices which could be dangerous and sometimes deadly. Many medications were mixed by chemists and pharmacists using whatever recipes they created and whatever was at hand. Alcohol was nearly always used, as was codeine, morphine, opium, cocaine, and other highly toxic drugs. It took journalists to reveal the often fraudulent claims and questionable business practices of the patent medicine business, which undoubtedly killed many men, women, and children before the government was spurred to action. Some of the original patent medicines survive today, though no longer marketed as medicine, including 7 Up, Dr. Pepper, and Coca-Cola, as well as Graham crackers and Grape-Nuts cereal.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
Tenements and overcrowding made America’s cities and larger towns crowded, unsafe, and unhealthy by the end of the Civil War. Wikimedia

10. The streets of the cities and towns were filthy

Before the onset of the automobile led to a new kind of traffic, animals dominated the streets of towns and cities across the United States, and not just in the form of horses and mules. Livestock, including cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats, were driven down city streets on the hoof to meet their fate at meat packing plants. In some cities, such as Cincinnati and St. Louis, pigs roamed the streets freely for decades, their usefulness in consuming garbage noted by local leaders. Live chickens were kept in many yards, a source of fresh eggs for the more successful and affluent citizens. Cities were festering sites of animal and human waste, most of it dropped untreated into streams and rivers, where it flowed downstream. Up to what became known as the Gilded Age most homeowners relied on what can be called outdoor plumbing, even in the largest cities.

The combination of raw sewage, human waste, and animal waste, not to mention the frequently encountered dead horses and mules in city streets, frequently left where they lay, meant that the cities of the United States – especially in the warmer months – were reeking cess pools. Public health and sanitation facilities were non-existent for most of the nineteenth century or at the very best were inadequate to the task. American cities were unhealthy places, as evidenced by the numerous epidemics of typhus and cholera, as well as other diseases, which plagued them. The threat of being stricken by an infectious disease which medicine didn’t understand and could do little about was a fact of life, which people could do little about besides abide.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
Zam-Buk – which is still sold – was first manufactured in Leeds, England and may or may not have contained arsenic. Wikimedia

11. Obtaining milky white skin was once a feminine priority

During the latter half of the nineteenth century urban women detested the look of skin tanned by exposure to the sun, or even worse, the appearance of freckles on the face. Parasols and sun bonnets were fashion essentials, but even with zero sun exposure many women of style and taste desired an even whiter look, a clear indication that labor in the out of doors was not a part of her life. During the Victorian Era women of fashion in London, and later in New York and along Philadelphia’s Main Line, resorted to the use of arsenic to achieve the color, or rather the lack of it, which they sought. They used arsenic in two ways, both of which were potentially toxic, and no doubt led to the weakness which was then referred to as the vapors.

White arsenic was concocted with cider vinegar and chalk to make a sort of gruel, which was then eaten daily until the desired paleness appeared. Arsenic was also blended with soap into a paste which was rubbed into the areas of exposed skin, the face, neck, bodice, and arms. Thus arsenic was ingested into the body through both means, as well as exposure to its fumes when the gruel was heated, as it often was to encourage full dissolving of the powders in the vinegar, which masked its taste. Helpful manufacturers marketed several soaps which contained arsenic as the world learned more about microbes after Pasteur discovered how to kill them (his process, called pasteurization, was applied to beer before it was used on milk), and the Victorian belle was thus aided in her quest for pale skin.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
One of the earliest products to offer its individual distinctive packaging was Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, which helped to eliminate the dangers if toxic materials in packages which resembled food packages. Wikimedia

12. There were no distinctive packages, which led to accidents

Packages containing household products didn’t begin to adopt distinctive shapes and sizes until near the end of the nineteenth century. Instead, products purchased at a general store or another merchant’s shop were boxed or wrapped by the merchant, usually in plain brown paper or an indistinct box or other container. This meant that a box of cleaning powder, which often contained highly toxic substances such as carbolic acid, could be boxed in the same manner and appearance as a box of baking soda, which it resembles in appearance as well. In 1888 Scotland, thirteen people were poisoned when a box of cleaning powder was mistaken for baking soda, leading to five deaths.

Similar incidents occurred in the United States, leading to packaging becoming a process directed by manufacturers for consumers, and distinctive packaging and labels began to evolve. One of the earliest manufacturers to do so in the United States was the cereal industry, which began marketing a product, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, in packages aimed at the consumer. The emergence of branded packages allowed for an increase in advertising, and also helped consumers with product safety. By the 1930s laws which addressed labeling and packaging were on the books, and packages with distinctive shapes and sizes became universal. At the same time customers began to serve themselves in many stores, rather than having to wait to be served by a clerk, assisted by the clear recognition of the product they desired.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
Radium made the dials of clocks and watches visible in the dark, though at great risk to those involved in their manufacture. Wikimedia

13. People poisoned themselves with radium

Radium was discovered by husband and wife Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898. Its earliest commercial use was in radio-luminous paint, which was applied to the dials of clocks, watches, and other instruments allowing them to be seen clearly in the dark. Although scientists and engineers were usually well informed of the dangers of using radium and the precautions to be taken, the general public was not. During the 1920s a lawsuit was filed by five women who had worked as dial painters for the United States Radium Corporation, where they had been instructed to maintain the fine points of their paintbrushes by licking them, thereby absorbing the radium. Eventually all died from radium related illnesses. They became known as the Radium Girls.

Prior to the Radium Girl case raising awareness of the hazards of the material, radium was touted by patent medicine manufacturers and other swindlers for its medicinal powers, and was included in some cosmetics, toothpastes, tonics, and some breads and other prepared foods. The Radium Girl case and several cases of cancer blamed on consumption of radium water ended the fad use of the substance, and shortly after World War II its use to create luminous dials was ended. Both Marie and Pierre Curie died of illnesses which were the result of their experiments and work with radium and the radon gas which is the daughter of radium. How many others died from exposure to radium before its hazards became well known is impossible to estimate.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
The Monitor Top refrigerator, named for the Civil War ironclad, was one of the most successful and reliable models ever built, replacing models which leaked dangerously. Wikimedia

14. Early refrigerators were likely to sicken and kill their owners

The icebox, and the ice man who supplied it with its cooling agent, were ubiquitous in American cities and towns when electrification began. Soon the availability of electricity led to the creation of new products to use electrical power other than for just illumination. One of them was the electric refrigerator, which didn’t require resupplying with blocks of ice, and was thus a symbol of status and success. Electric refrigerators for use in the home were developed in the United States in the second decade of the twentieth century. By the 1920s, refrigerators were available for consumers who had the money to pay for them, but they cost more than a Model T Ford, and were thus too important to remain hidden in the kitchen since the possession of one was a status symbol.

Like the Model T Ford, they were also cranky and could be quite dangerous, since they used ammonia as an absorption material and frequently leaked. The toxic gas was quite caustic, and could easily cause permanent lung damage if it didn’t kill the refrigerator’s owner. They also leaked other gases, equally dangerous, including Sulphur dioxide and methyl chloride. Methyl chloride is also known as chloromethane and is highly flammable, an unwelcome addition to the atmosphere of a kitchen, which had a flame source standing nearby in the form of a stove. The adoption of Freon later in the 1920s made the refrigerator more reliable and safer for the consumer, and by the 1920s the appliance was so reliable that many copies of the General Electric Monitor Top, introduced in 1927, still operate in the 21st century.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
Mrs. Beeton felt that the adulteration of milk with boracic acid was beneficial and completely harmless, a judgement in which she was completely wrong. Wikimedia

15. Poisoning milk was recommended by culinary authorities

Before the process of pasteurization was applied to milk it spoiled quickly, even if kept cold in an icebox or springhouse. Milk soured and often even if not spoiled had an off taste, since it was delivered to the consumer in a raw state. In the 1860s a British culinary authority emerged when she produced the first truly modern cookbook, with tightly structured recipes, descriptions of techniques, and supported by illustrations. Subsequent editions appeared for many years, entitled Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton being Isabella Beeton, whose husband published the book. The book has remained in continuous print since the first edition appeared in 1861, though Mrs. Beeton died in 1865.

Mrs. Beeton supported the practice of treating milk which had started to go bad by dissolving boracic acid in it, which purified the milk in her belief, as well as many others. The practice being endorsed by the leading domestic text of its day expanded its use. Boracic acid however did not purify the milk, it instead made it dangerous. Consumption of small amounts of boracic acid induces, among other symptoms such as nausea, severe diarrhea which in children of the time was often fatal. It did mask the smell, which was often a sign of the milk being contaminated with bovine tuberculosis. In humans, bovine tuberculosis can cause spinal defects and even paralysis. Pasteurization eventually removed that risk, though it remains present in raw milk, which became fashionable for those espousing whole natural foods in the late twentieth century.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
Despite being clearly labeled as poison, women used belladonna to enhance their attractiveness, with sometimes devastating effects. Wikimedia

16. Eyedrops made from a deadly poison were a common cosmetic

The Nightshade plant known as atropa belladonna, and usually referred to as belladonna, which means beautiful lady in Italian, was valued for its cosmetic uses despite the fact that the plant and many of its components, such as leaves, roots, and berries, are highly toxic. Its relationship to the tomato plant is one reason that the fruit of the tomato was so long considered by many to be poisonous. Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants native to the Eastern hemisphere, but it has been used for cosmetic purposes at least as far back as the Roman Empire. Its berries, one of the most toxic parts of the plant, appear in the shape of cherries, about the size of blueberries, and were the portion of the plant often kept by women in the past.

The juice of the berries was used to make eye drops, which when placed in the eyes caused them to dilate in a manner which appeared seductive. The use of the drops is believed to be behind the name of the plant by some, whether true or not is debatable. The length of time the eye remained dilated depended on the strength of the drops, the amount applied, and frequency of use. In many cases the drops led to temporary blindness or visual distortion, accelerated heart rates, hallucinations, and fainting. Prolonged use could lead to permanent vision loss as well as heart palpitations. Belladonna was also sometimes applied to the skin of the face around the eyes, which caused a similar reaction, though less pronounced. It remains in use in some homeopathic medicines in the 21st century, though the United States Food and Drug Administration warns against its use for children when teething, one of the applications for which it is marketed.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
The long skirts required of women, as with this one in Brisbane in 1900 (what’s keeping it from being entangled in the chain?) were often dangerous for many reasons. Wikimedia

17. Long skirts were often dangerous for women in the home

The long skirts which were the standard costume for women into the twentieth century were often dangerous for several reasons, one of the first and foremost being fire. Fireplaces and stoves could easily allow the flames within to ignite the skirts when a woman was too close, either to feed the fire, or check on food being prepared. Washing, which was frequently done in an open tub above a fire was another operation in which a woman’s skirt was perilously close to an open flame, and the kitchen offered several opportunities for a fiery accident. The skirts could also easily be snagged by an object the view of which the skirt itself obscured, throwing her off balance and leading to dangerous falls.

For many years there were no building codes regulating the construction of staircases, and many were slapdash in nature, particularly those used by servants in the conduct of their duties. Narrow stairs, irregular spacing between risers, and uneven treads, with no handrail, were difficult to negotiate with a skirt blocking the view, a difficulty magnified if the person attempting to ascend or descend the stairs was encumbered with baskets, trays, or other burdens. Each step became an opportunity for a bad fall, and falls in the home were a common cause of injury. Floor length skirts as everyday apparel are a thing of the past, thankfully, not just for esthetic reasons, but for safety as well.

18 Ways in Which People in History Endangered Themselves Needlessly With Everyday Things
Though clearly fashionable, stayed corsets were unhealthy, uncomfortable, and nearly unbearable for women, though they remained in use for many years. Wikimedia

18. Corsets were physically dangerous for the wearer

The term “loose woman” evolved from the practice of not wearing a corset during the Victorian Age, with those women who did wear them referred to as “strait-laced”. It is probable that loose women were of better physical health than those who were strapped into the corsets of the day. The tightly tied device increased pressure on the lungs, disrupting breathing, and other internal organs were forced into unnatural positions. Corsets were causes of accelerated heart rates (as a result of the disrupted breathing), constipation, indigestion, and even fainting. Over a period of 25 years the distinguished British medical journal The Lancet published at least one article each year discussing the hazards of wearing tightly laced corsets, but fashion ruled over sense, and the corset trend continued.

More than ninety illnesses or other medical conditions were attributed to corsets during the 1870s, and nearly all of them were avoidable. Organ damage was common, and some medical professionals identified mental health issues associated with their use. Female “vapors” and fainting spells were often caused simply because they were unable to take a deep breath, their lungs and diaphragms prevented from performing their simple reflexive tasks because their owner was encased in an unyielding cocoon. That women became lightheaded while wearing the devices is easily explained by their being unable to breathe properly, move properly, or eat and drink properly, all because of the necessity of appearing to be proper.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Basic information about lead in drinking water”. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Online

“About lead-based paint”. United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Online

“Leaded Gas Was a Known Poison the Day it was Invented”. Kat Eschner, Smithsonian Magazine. December 9, 2016

“For Lincoln, ancient cure worse than his malady”. Jeremy Manier, The Chicago Tribune. July 17, 2001

“Asbestos Revisited”. James E. Alleman, Brooke T. Mossman, Scientific American. July, 1997

“Asbestos: From magic to malevolent mineral”. David Gee, Morris Greenberg, pdf. January, 2002. Online

“9/11’s delayed legacy: cancer for many of the rescue workers”. Ed Pilkington, The Guardian. November 11, 2009

“Teflon Maker: Out Of Frying Pan Into Flame”. William Robbins, The New York Times. December 21, 1986

“The Great American Medicine Show”. David Armstrong and Elizabeth M. Armstrong. 1991

“The Rise of the City: 1878-1898”. Arthur M. Schlesinger. 1999

“The Poisonous Beauty Advice Columns of Victorian England”. Natalie Zarrelli, Atlas Obscura. December 17, 2015

“10 Dangerous Things in Victorian/Edwardian Homes”. Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb, BBC News. December 16, 2013

“Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy”. R. Mulner, American Public Health Association. 1999

“Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America”. Jonathan Rees. 2013

“Dangerous Garden: The quest for plants to change our lives”. David Stuart. 2004

“How the Fashion Industry has Injured Women: From Killer Heels to Long Scarf Syndrome”. Alison Matthews David, The Independent. September 22, 2015

“The dangers of tight lacing: the effects of the corset”. Susan Isaac, The Royal College of Surgeons (London). February 17, 2017