There’s a popular saying that starts, “If I knew then what I know now.” The idea is that you have grown and learned in the present, and you could have used that knowledge to do things better in the past. This works on an individual level, but also for society as a whole. In the past, humanity was prone to do something preposterous things. We could look back now and realize how silly, awful, and weird some of these practices truly were.
10. Gun Classes in Elementary School
In Indiana in 1956, there was a brief period of time when young children were being shown how to use guns in the classroom. Today that idea would be considered laughable if it wasn’t also vaguely terrifying. Any responsible gun owner should want their child to understand gun safety. But do you want it being taught at school by someone else who may not be responsible? Among other children who also may not be responsible? Who maybe have access to a weapon and now have the knowledge of how to use it?
Given the modern view of guns in schools, and the fact kids have to do active shooter drills so they can respond to an armed intruder in the school, this idea is a modern parent’s nightmare. It seems like the potential for abuse or accidents is very high.
Pictures from these classes show children under 10 years of age using rifles and shotguns in the class. Is it possible they were loaded? Perhaps, but images also show police officers conducting the course firing them in front of kids as well. So live ammo was a part of the process.
Is it wrong to teach kids responsible gun handling? Not at all, if you believe in such a thing. But having it taught in a public school with no parental guidance does seem to be a potential danger. When you look at the history of school shootings, and see that there were a number of shootings in the 1950s as well, both accidental and intentional, and it becomes more clear why guns and schools have never mixed.
9. Swaddling Babies
There are a whole host of things we have learned are not good for babies that we used to think were just primo. From cages installed outside of windows that babies could sit in to mercury as a method of teething relief, it’s kind of amazing any babies of the past ever grew up.
One of the more recent about faces we’ve made in child care relates to swaddling. Many cultures have practiced this for ages, wrapping a baby up like a tiny human burrito to make them feel safe and secure.
So what’s the problem? Literally thousands if not millions of people alive today were swaddled as babies and turned out fine. The problem is the ones that didn’t turn out fine.
Professionals admit that if you swaddle a baby properly, it may help them sleep better and feel more secure. But it’s that pesky “if” that is the problem. If you do it wrong there is an increased risk of hyperthermia, hip dysplasia, and sudden infant death syndrome. And the problem is most people who do it wrong think they’re doing it right.
8. Human Waste Management
In today’s world, we definitely take plumbing and sanitation for granted. There was a time when flushing a toilet was not an option, though. And back then, not everything we did to clean up waste was necessarily a good idea.
There’s a popular belief that in medieval times and beyond people simply tossed a chamber pot out of the window to dump whatever nastiness they had in an alley. There are also a number of history-themed articles that will refute this claim. After all, the smell of human waste was as unpleasant back then as it was today. So the story goes that people did not do this as a common practice. But it must be noted that “as a common practice” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.
Cities in England had established fines for people caught throwing waste in the street outside of their houses. That implies it happened enough to necessitate fines. And even when it was not being disposed of in the least sanitary manner, the most sanitary manner was not sanitary either.
In many towns, residents took a bucket to a stream to dump their daily waste. That’s not the best solution and when you have hundreds or thousands of people in a single town, it creates some of the most foul streams and rivers imaginable. There’s a street in modern day Essex called “Chute Street” that earned its name for a word that sounds vaguely like “chute” but smells a lot worse. It was because a brook ran down the street that carried away all the sewage for the town.
7. Hysteria Treatment
For well over 4,000 years, the idea that women suffered from a condition called hysteria was widespread. There are writings of it that date back to 1900 BC in Egypt. They believed it was caused by spontaneous uterus movements. The condition itself was a vague one with a variety of potential symptoms. Just about anything from anxiety to fluid retention to wanting too much sex or not enough sex could be considered hysterical.
Rachel Maines has theorized that the invention of the vibrator was directly linked to treatment for female hysteria. The idea was that bringing women to orgasm, what doctors at the time referred to as hysterical paroxysm, could cure the hysteria and allow a woman to get on with her life.
Interestingly enough, though modern understanding makes this incredibly sexual, it was potentially not viewed that way in the past. There is also evidence to suggest doctors of the time were of the opinion a woman would not receive any sexual pleasure from external stimulation. Thus using a vibrator was strictly therapeutic. Maybe that was just something they said so as to not look licentious at the time.
Now we realize that most of these women considered hysterical were probably suffering from a vast array of other conditions. It was just the bizarrely wrong-headed belief that almost everything afflicting a woman could be the same thing that led to hysteria being a single diagnosis.
6. Car Seats
Although the automobile was invented in the 1800s, they didn’t achieve widespread acceptance in America until the 1920s. Car safety was barely a thing for those first models. They were just metal boxes on wheels and accidents were common. Windshield wipers weren’t even invented until 1903, meaning cars had been mostly helpless in the rain for around 15 years.
By 1911 the idea of a rearview mirror existed, and turn indicators showed up in 1914. Padding on the dashboard didn’t exist until 1947. The first car seat designed to keep children safe wasn’t invented until 1962. Standards were not put in place until 1971.The first child car seat law wasn’t on the books until 1979. In 1985 all states finally had laws about car seats.
For around 40 years of heavy use, cars had just short of no way to keep a child safe. Seatbelts weren’t even invented until the 1950s. And there had been early versions of car seats for kids, but not ones meant to keep them safe. Instead, early car seats were booster seats so the child could see out windows and be kept in one place.
Even today, the CDC says that over 600,000 children under 12 are riding in cars with no car restraints every year. Compare that with what things must have been like before they even existed.
5. People as Decorations
Human history is full of horrible, heart-breaking examples of the terrible ways we can treat one another. From slavery to genocide to eugenics and more, our species has had a knack for doing awful things to one another. Not every example of using and abusing other humans ended with so much bloodshed, however. For instance, the practice of garden hermits.
The idea of exploiting another human as a decoration is something most of us would consider incredibly wrong today. In the 18th century, it was a sign of affluence and culture. The garden hermit was a real, live human paid to live in a garden. They would have a shack or other dwelling referred to as a hermitage and their job was to just live there. They might be asked to wear a costume such as that of a druid. And it was expected that they would not bathe for years. Their hair and nails would grow long and the landowner could show them off to their friends.
The reasons behind the garden hermit are as peculiar as the practice itself. Melancholy was considered a primo state of being back in the day, and a hermit embodied that in spades. They could display somberness and dedication to their solitude in a way that made them admirable. That it was all something of an act, at least insofar as the fact they were dressed up and being paid, didn’t seem to matter.
4. Hazardous Waste Disposal
Toxic waste isn’t a term you hear much anymore. Hazardous waste is considered a more appropriate description, but for years, this incredibly dangerous waste material was something that we had essentially no way of dealing with.
The Industrial Revolution brought with it pollution on a mass scale. Heavy metals, nuclear waste, asbestos, pesticides and other toxic byproducts have been a side effect of industry for over one hundred years. For a time it was newsworthy when a company was caught dumping this stuff into waterways. But if that wasn’t happening, the world often turned a blind eye.
The fact is, most toxic waste was put in dumps for decades. Barrels of hazardous substances that we hoped would go away are at risk of leaking or are already leaking waste. Hanford Nuclear Reservation houses 56 million barrels of waste underground that are leaking and polluting the earth.
Modern techniques for dealing with toxic waste are at least trying to ameliorate the environmental impact. Recycling plays a large part in trying to lessen the volume of waste. The other big method of handling hazardous wastes now is treatment. Just like adding baking soda to an acid can neutralize it there are chemicals and other processes that can neutralize toxic waste. Various methods include incineration, metabolization with microbes, filtration and evaporation to reduce volume and so on.
3. Mental Illness
Treating any kind of mental illness with a lobotomy is something we know today is extremely wrong. That was just the top of the iceberg in terms of wrong-headed thinking when it came to mental illness in the past, however. And while we still don’t have a full understanding of the human brain and how it works, for the most part we know not to blame evil spirits. That’s not true of everyone in the modern world, but most mental health professionals aren’t going to blame schizophrenia on Satan these days. Unfortunately, for much of human history, this was not the case.
Ancient Persians believed evil spirits caused mental illness and you could prevent such conditions with good thoughts. Ancient Hebrews thought it was the wrath of God. Mesopotamians thought it was demonic possession and a ritualistic exorcism could fix you right up. In the 17th century, a good deal of women persecuted as witches may have got the label due to the exhibition of any behavior considered aberrant, which would have included mental illness. In ancient India, some believed mental illness was evidence of sins in past lives.
Although some societies of the past had semi-enlightened views of mental illness, or at leats were beginning to understand that it wasn’t demonic in nature, treating them was still difficult. Egyptians tried to occupy the mentally ill with tasks like painting and dancing, creative endeavors to try to ease their troubles. It may not have cured anything but it was certainly better than cutting out pieces of brain.
Today we at least understand the concepts of chemical imbalances, genetic disorders, brain trauma and other causes of mental illness. It’s been a long and difficult road, however.
We’ve already seen how car seats were a struggle, but the war on seatbelts took the opposition to safety to new lows. People actively hated the idea of seatbelts. In fact, there is a good comparison between the introduction of seatbelts and the introduction of masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. While some were quick to adopt the measure recommended by authorities, others took it as a direct attack on freedom.
Only 2% of car buyers opted to have one back in 1956 when Ford made them an option. In 1968 the National Highway Traffic and Safety Act mandated all vehicles include seat belts, something Ralph Nader had accused automakers of ignoring to increase profits. A full 65% of Americans opposed seatbelts in the 1980s. In 1983, only 15% of Americans used them. New York was the first state to make using them a law and that didn’t happen until 1984.
People claimed wearing a belt was inconvenient and uncomfortable. Some even suggested wearing one would be more dangerous in an accident and that somehow being thrown free in a crash would be safer.
Times have changed and most people today, about 90% of drivers, understand the value of seatbelt. In 2017 alone nearly 15,000 lives were saved by them.
1. Mailing Children
The mail service has been a staple of life for generations. Even when email threatened to wipe it out, the Post Office persevered. And who doesn’t feel a little thrill when they get a package in the mail?
The mail service was definitely more exciting to past generations and when the Post Office started offering the ability to send parcels in the mail, people were really into it. Bafflingly, dangerously into it.
While today you might send a care package to a friend with some snacks and a sweater in it, back in 1913 people let their imaginations run wild with possibility. If you could send anything under a certain weight through the mail, why not a small human?
An Ohio couple was first to make news when they tried to mail their 8-month-old to his grandmother. They paid 15 cents and apparently the postman took him for the few miles ride to grandma’s house. Later, a young girl was sent with the mail on a train to visit her grandmother over 70 miles away because mail was cheaper than a train ticket. She at least had a chaperone on the train who worked for the company, which may have greased the wheels on that shady procedure a bit.
The post office officially banned the practice but there’s evidence it still continued in some rural areas where people were willing to trust postal workers literally with their children’s lives. One can only imagine the Twitter uproar today if someone tried to package their kid and give them to a FedEx driver.