It wasn’t all better before. Think of all these practices that were allowed before science came to prove their risks, and that the government banned them definitively, unless fashion was responsible for relegating them to oblivion … Medicine itself has made mistakes before progressing.
These are not well-known practices, but more incredible, obscure, and yet very European, uses that will surprise you.
1. Over-the-counter cocaine
It sounds incredible, but cocaine has not always been considered a harsh, harmful health drug. The natives of South America have chewed it for ages, and in the 19th century it was prescribed as an anesthetic, or to combat addiction to morphine in Europe. In the United States it was even recommended for children, as shown in this advertisement which advocates this instant remedy for toothache for 15 cents. A century later, cocaine was found in wine and coca. It was not until 1914 that it was banned in most industrialized countries.
2. Sending children by post
Surprisingly, it was not uncommon to see parents send their young ones by post to their grandparents at the start of the 20th century! In the United States, it was enough to pay 15 cents to send a child by standard mail, which cost far less than using the train, and the children were in the company of someone they knew during the entire trip.
3. Hanging cages for babies
It is thrilling nowadays, but in the UK in the 1930s, it was very common to hang your little children out of their apartment window so they could breathe the fresh air. Different designs of baby cages were commercially available, at a time when many families lived in apartments, and employed mothers had no time to take their children to the park. One can imagine that many accidents took place because these machines disappeared from the English urban landscape from 1940.
4. A hermit at the bottom of the garden
Did you know that among the eccentricities of the 19th century is the fashion of keeping a hermit at the bottom of his garden to parade it like a circus animal during visits to “good society”? The bourgeois lacking time to meditate during the industrialization of Europe, they felt the need to hire hermits supposed to live at the bottom of their immense properties in caves, in rags, with the obligation to go out when guests came, to share the wisdom acquired in their isolation thanks to such patronage. The owners were proud to show that their status allowed them to have a wise man so naturally living at hand.
5. A panoply of questionable treatments
When the medicine was still in an experimental state, many methods to treat infections, mental illnesses or stuttering were used which proved to be without result, cruel or even dangerous. Nothing was spared us from bleeding, including electric shock. Even very serious doctors have developed questionable techniques, such as this device devised by Lewis Sayre (a renowned orthopedist from New York) for hanging patients with back problems.
6. Uranium for playing
While we hardly recognized the harmful effects of radioactivity, and despite the published research by Pierre and Marie Curie, many products containing radioactive elements were available over the counter in the 1950s. Imagine the number of little boys who played with this atomic energy laboratory comprising real polonium and real uranium!
7. Human zoos
Just as circuses exhibited deformed people, some large cities once offered exhibitions of humans of different origins, discovered during the period of colonization of the planet. Oscillating between ethnology and shameful entertainment, these human zoos (like here the Congolese village of the Universal Exhibition of Brussels in 1958) have mostly disappeared.
8. Psychiatric hospitals open to the public
Not too long ago, mental hospitals were places forgotten by human dignity. Patients were treated like animals there, often malnourished, mistreated and absolutely untreated. These establishments were funded by the public, who were invited to deposit food for these unfortunate beings, but soon this collaborative funding turned into a circus. It was the upper classes who took advantage of these paid excursions to asylums where patients were exhibited in cages, mocked when they banged their heads against the walls, and beaten at leisure.
9. Anatomical collections
It is not imagined that anyone – apart from serial killers – has a collection of pieces of human bodies. However, from Indian scalpers to soldiers of the 2nd World War wanting to keep a memory of their enemies, this practice has existed for centuries. There was even a time when it was popular to have a room reserved for this kind of collection in the homes of good families.
10. Cigarettes recommended for pregnant women
While the cigarette was not so long ago the number 1 enemy of doctors, there was a time when they even recommended it to expectant mothers, in order to avoid constipation (above an advertisement for Philip Morris, the “Born to be sweet” filterless cigarette aimed at young mothers). Can we imagine the smoky hospitals or the doctors receiving us with cigarettes on our lips? And yet 70 years ago it was a reality.