Status symbols are some of the hardest to understand aspects of any culture or society. What makes any given thing a symbol of importance? Is a rare NFT of a cartoon monkey really indicative of anything? What about a Ferrari? Truth is, status symbols have always been pretty mysterious and weird. Just look at these…
Our ancestors were harvesting pineapple in South America thousands of years ago, and why not? It’s delicious, refreshing, and it looks pretty cool as far as fruit goes as well. Columbus was so impressed with the fruit that after pillaging the New World, he brought it back to Europe with him and soon it became the “it” thing for anyone who was anyone.
In the 16th and 17th Century, Europeans fell in love with the pineapple. It was exotic and hard to come by, so getting a hold of one indicated you had money or influence. Charles II commissioned a painting of himself with a pineapple. The cost of building a greenhouse to grow pineapples in England was upwards of £28,000. Many of them failed, and it took years to grow the fruit, all of which added to the cache of having one. So how much did a pineapple cost back then? About £60. Adjusted for inflation, that’s around £11,000 today. So in a lot of ways, a pineapple was legitimately like owning a 75-inch TV, or some other needless luxury.
Ironically, or maybe not depending on your perspective, people would not actually do much with those pricey pineapples. If you’re spending that much, you’re not just making a fruit salad, right? So, often, the fruit would just sit on a table like a decoration to show off for anyone who came by.
9. Ornamental Hermits
If a pineapple seems like an obscure sort of decoration, a hermit has to be next level. In the 18th century, part of tending a garden meant making it as lush and luxurious as possible if you wanted to show off your station in life. After all, only the most high society types would be able to afford majestic topiaries and exotic flowers from abroad. But at some point, this evolved beyond normal garden fixtures to include the ornamental hermit.
Just as the name suggests, an ornamental hermit was a man, a literal person, who lived in a little shack or hovel on the grounds of another person’s home. Think of a garden gnome only in real life. These men would dress as druids, grow long beards, and essentially look like your own personal Gandalf. They also didn’t bathe, just to complete the illusion.
The hermit was not to speak with anyone for a period of seven years. They’d just live there, not bathing, and looking the part. The trend evolved from the idea of Roman Emperor Hadrian having a single person retreat at his villa, something that was later adapted by Pope Pius IV. And by the 18th century people just decided that having a lone hermit was in keeping with more of an emotional ideal of the melancholy. That is to say, they exemplified introspection and somberness, feelings which were valued at the time and apparently best appreciated in living, breathing form. Only the most wealthy of people could afford to hire a person to live like this and thus, one of the most bizarre status symbols was born.
Luckily for the would-be hermits, the trend did not last long.
8. Men’s High Heels
These days, high heel shoes are almost exclusively sold to women. People would arguably look at a man strangely if they saw him wearing heels because of cultural biases we still hold relating to what qualifies as menswear and womenswear. What’s odd about this is that high heels were originally made for men and not women.
Heels date back to somewhere between the 10th and 15th century in Persia. And they weren’t considered effeminate or odd in any way, just the opposite. Heels were worn by warriors as they allowed them greater control and security in stirrups on horseback.
At the time, the Persian military was not accessible to just any man. If you planned to ride on a horse, then you needed to be wealthy enough to buy your own. Thus, those who could wear heels were part of the elite class. The heels were introduced to Europe at the end of the 1500s when the Persians made a grand tour of Europe looking for allies in war.
European nobility couldn’t resist the allure of something new and unique. To them, heels were manly and cool, so they all wanted a pair of their own. When people of lower station began wearing heels, the aristocrats made higher heels. They became impractically high and that cemented them as the shoes of the elite because normal people couldn’t actually perform real jobs in high heels, so only the upper crust could get away with wearing them.
7. Low Number License Plates
Cars as a status symbol is by no means a new idea. As long as cars have existed, there have been the more expensive and luxurious versions that people have sought as a way to show off their wealth. The Rolls Royce Boat Tail will set you back $28 million if you’re looking to show off your fancy car chops today, but it’s not the only car-related status symbol out there by any means.
In Rhode Island and several other states, you don’t need a multimillion dollar automobile to show off your street cred. You just need the right license plate. Low numbers have long been desired by license plate enthusiasts.
When license plates were first issued, they did them in the most logical way you could imagine – numerically. So the first plate ever issued was just number 1. And so it went. As plates go out of circulation, those numbers can be reissued. Or, if they still exist, owners can will them to relatives or even sell them. And people pay a lot of money for them.
The governor got that number one plate back in 1903. You can imagine the imagined cache of having a car emblazoned with a government-sanctioned “1” on it. It created the idea that a low number was somehow good. This is a trend you can see every day in almost anything with a numerical ordering system. People want to be number one. Oftentimes it makes no sense at all, but we still like the sound of it. That’s essentially how it works with these plates. It’s meaningless, but people still want them.
What’s a low plate worth? Delaware’s “9” sold for nearly $200,000 in 1994. A 14 went for $325,000. Despite not meaning much objectively, they have that subjective value which allows someone to say they’re the top. Or at least top 14. And that means a lot to some folks.
6. Dueling Scars
Have you ever heard the saying “chicks dig scars?” Juvenile though it may be, there’s something to the idea of scars being cool. Maybe not literally, but you can’t deny that there is a cultural sort of appreciation for someone who has battle scars or evidence of trauma. Why? Who knows? But you can see it in books and movies all the time, those scenes where the hero takes their shirt off and dramatically reveals the cuts and holes and tears of a hard life that shows just how tough and admirable they must truly be.
The idea that scars are desirable wasn’t born in a vacuum of fiction. In real life, people have pursued scars as a way to show off their own badassery for longer than you might think. A 2008 study shows that women were more attracted to men who had facial scars. But the practice of scarring to be cool goes back further.
Germans used to engage in duels ostensibly to get cuts on their faces. This was done by college men in fraternities to show off their manliness. The Nazi party actually reintroduced the practice of dueling in 1936. The duels were never meant to be malicious or to settle real disputes; they were just sort of like a Fight Club-style battle to prove one’s toughness.
As you might expect, not everyone was inclined to let an opponent slash them with a rapier. Word is that some men used razors on their own faces, or even paid doctors to do it for them.
If you’ve seen any period piece movies that cover 18th century England, then you know wigs were a prominent part of British high society. All the aristocrats in old movies wear those giant, puffy white wigs. The concept of the powdered wig actually comes from France and King Louis XIII, who wore one to cover his baldness. The wigs were powdered because, made from horse or goat hair as they were, and never actually cleaned, they smelled awful and were full of lice. Powder cut back on the nastiness.
As we saw with high heels, the elite in society love nothing more than to do what everyone else is doing, and so the wig trend spread rapidly. They became more ornate and complex as the trend grew and, just like a pair of sneakers in modern times, if you wanted to stand out among a certain crowd of people, you had to have the best looking wig you could get. Some high end wigs, when adjusted for inflation, could cost over $10,000.
Wigs became so popular that a black market arose and wig theft became a serious problem. To appreciate just how serious, you should know that some people apparently trained monkeys to snatch wigs right off people’s heads and run away with them.
Some people take their lawn care very seriously. You might even say too seriously. Many neighborhoods have that one lawn that’s just pristine and green all year around because someone is devoting a ton of time to making it look majestic. A lot of other people don’t care. But once upon a time, a lawn was a thing of true status.
A patch of grass seems like an odd status symbol, but not once you realize what it represents. In a way, it’s actually very crass. A lawn, once upon a time, showed your wealth because it was wasteful. A peasant couldn’t afford a lawn. The land was their livelihood. A farmer couldn’t have a lawn, they needed that land to grow food to make a living. But a rich person? They could waste so much land. So a large lawn indicated you didn’t care about how much space you wasted.
Over time, homeowners got to have their own property and their own lawns, which, in their way, showed a kind of independence. It showed success. We still kind of think of homeownership in those terms, but not necessarily the needless patch of grass in front of one.
3. Paper Fans
Most people today take paper for granted. You go to Staples and buy a slab of it for your printer and it costs a few bucks. No big deal. But if you get into the world of paper, you’ll learn that paper is never “just” paper. There’s that cheap printer paper you can buy that’s made from processed wood pulp and costs under $10 for 500 sheets. Or you can buy 50 sheets of paper made from processed elephant poop for $32.
In Korea, hanji was handmade paper produced from mulberry trees. It was used for writing but also numerous decorative and artistic purposes as well. One of those purposes was for folded hand fans. These fans were only allowed to be used by men in public and were shown off as a status symbol.
The more ornate the fan, the more important the person wielding it arguably was. Different colors, shapes and decorations showed off that status. For instance, the more bamboo ribs the fan had, the higher the status. Royalty would wield fans with 50 ribs. Lesser aristocracy might have 40.
Of all the seasonings in the world, none is more important to chefs than salt. When a chef says something needs seasoning, they don’t mean saffron. They mean salt. And, historically, salt has been a big deal. Salt used to be one of the most valuable commodities in the world. In Ancient Greece, slaves would be sold for salt. Clearly it had some serious value, and this extended through much of history.
Because of its value, those who could show off salt were also showing off their social status. The true bigwigs of society could afford salt cellars, an ornate container that held salt and at gatherings and parties, the host would show it off like it was a Porsche in the driveway. At a dinner, those of greater status would be seated above the salt. Lesser folks sat further away.
Pillows hold an odd position in the world at large. You have one on your bed for sleeping, but some people also have a good half dozen on the bed that are just there for decoration. The same thing happens on sofas as well. The world is full of pillows, many of which are just there to look nice but not be used for anything.
The stone pillow became widely popular and only the wealthy could afford them because carved stone isn’t cheap today and it wasn’t cheap back then. Thus, a pillow was something that showed off your status as a big wig.
Decorative pillows spread to other cultures. Ornately painted ceramic pillows became a status symbol in China. In the Middle Ages, soft pillows were used by the rich and eschewed by the men as being weak.
To this day, we’ve kept up the idea of the decorative pillow as something opulent, even though it has no real use as a pillow. The next time anyone complains about you have pillows you can’t actually use, just tell them you’re participating in a 9,000 year old tradition of decadence.