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17 Unbelievable Things You Didn't Realise Happened 100 Years Ago

1917 was wild, y'all. H/T 100YearsAgo

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1. An acrobat called "The Human Fly" entertained people by balancing precariously on the edge of buildings.

John Reynolds, pictured here balancing on the ledge of the Lansburgh furniture building in Washington, DC, was a famous acrobat. He began his routines by climbing the outside of the building like Spider-Man before starting his balancing act. His alarming antics would regularly draw crowds of around 1,500 people, who were clearly hoping he'd fall off.

2. And an ostrich farm became one of the most popular tourist attractions in the US. / Creative Commons

It was the first ostrich farm in the country, created by an entrepreneur called Edwin Cawston, who shipped 50 South African ostriches to California at considerable expense. Guests could ride around on the back of ostriches, or ride in an ostrich-drawn carriage (pictured). And all because TV hadn't been invented yet.

3. People put radioactive suppositories up their butts. / Creative Commons

In 1917, the harmful effects of radiation were still unknown, and radium was used as an all-round curative, guaranteed to give users a "healthy glow" and "bombard organs with health-giving electric atoms". Argh. A group of women known as the "Radium Girls" were victims of this trend. They were watch-dial painters at the United States Radium factory, and would lick their paintbrushes to give them a fine point, which over time caused fatal radiation poisoning.


5. And camouflage looked like this: / Creative Commons

Camouflage was in its earliest stages during WWI, and it was pretty basic. This black and white striped version was known as "dazzle" camouflage, designed to make soldiers harder to target rather than hiding them completely. The camouflage we're more familiar with today (countershading) didn't really take off until World War II.

6. A wife took her husband to court for refusing to wash.

He argued that he was too fat to fit into the bathtub, and was sentenced to probation, meaning that if he failed to find a way to take a bath, he'd be jailed. What a catch.

7. A (male) doctor published a pretty damn inaccurate book called Private Sex Advice to Women.


He was called Dr. R.B. Armitage, and he published Private Sex Advice to Women to "enlighten young wives and young women who plan to marry." His advice included "sex during pregnancy should be avoided if possible" and that pain was not a normal feature of menstruation – it was caused by wearing too-tight clothing, eating pickles, and not getting enough exercise from housework. The more you know.

8. A giant German zeppelin crashed into a French valley.

It had been hit by French fighter planes and strafed with bullets at a height of 16,000 feet, lost gas, and descended into a French valley, lodging itself right the way across it. The "monstrous" ship was 550 feet long and 70 feet wide; horrified observers described it as a "hideous, abominable killing machine."


9. Dutch exotic dancer Mata Hari was convicted of being a German spy, and executed by firing squad. / Creative Commons

Mata Hari (real name Margarete Zelle) was born in Holland but moved to Paris, posing as the daughter of Dutch royalty and a Javanese princess. Her erotic dance routines were wildly popular, and she took several wealthy lovers. Unfortunately, she accepted money from a German officer, and the French courts decided she was a double agent and spy. They executed her in October 1917.

10. A cookbook called A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband, with Bettina’s Best Recipes was a big success.

It's written like a novel, weirdly, and follows a pair of newlyweds called Bettina and Bob. Some of the "delicious" recipes inside included jellied beef, creamed tuna on toast, peas in a baking powder sauce, and coffee boiled with egg whites. Mmm, scrambled coffee.

11. A mother accidentally made poisoned pancakes.

Arsenic was readily available in people's homes in 1917, as it was used for pest control. Unfortunately, it looked a lot like flour, which led to accidents like the tragic one detailed above. It probably shouldn't have been kept in a pantry.

12. British soldiers set off one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts in modern history, killing 10,000 German soldiers.

On 7 June 1917, 19 highly explosive mines were placed in tunnels underneath the massed German army at La Boisselle near Messines in France. The blast was so loud it was heard in London and Dublin, a towering mushroom cloud rose to 4,000 feet, and it left a huge crater that was over 200 feet deep and 450 feet wide. Whoa.


13. The first-ever plastic surgery took place in Kent, UK.

It was carried out by a pioneering doctor called Harold Gillies, who found a way to prevent the body rejecting skin grafts by boosting the blood supply to the surrounding tissue using a tube of flesh called a "pedicle". His patient, a naval gunner named Walter Yeo who was wounded during the Battle of Jutland in 1916, received Gillies' first successful flap graft in 1917.

14. Army officers attempted to listen out for incoming enemy planes using massive ear trumpets like this.

Before the invention of radar, people attempted to listen out for incoming air raids using ridiculously large arrays like this two-horn system at Bolling Field in Washington, DC. These acoustic locators were basically giant hearing aids, which fed sound to the operator through two long, stethoscope-like devices. They weren't very effective.

15. The German army trained pigeons to carry cameras.

The camera was mounted on an aluminium breast harness, which was then attached to a pigeon. They had a timer mechanism that would automatically take pictures at regular intervals, because apparently pigeons can't be trusted to click a shutter.

16. Two young girls fooled the world with hoax photos. / Creative Commons

In mid-1917, 9-year-old Frances Griffiths and her 16-year-old cousin Elsie claimed to have seen fairies at the bottom of Elsie's garden. Elsie then borrowed her father's camera to "prove it". When her father developed the plate, it showed Frances surrounded by fairies. Her father was sure that the photos were staged, but Elsie's mother was convinced they were genuine and showed them to her theosophical (a sort of spiritualist) society, and they basically went viral, especially after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took an interest. But they were, of course, fake.

17. And the US Immigration Service posted a child.

Yep, they literally pinned an address to her and dropped her off at the post office, and that was after she'd already made a 7,000-mile journey unaccompanied. Not cool, immigration officials. In conclusion, 1917 was another damn world entirely.