Safe Things We Used to Think Were Dangerous


Life is a learning process. When we discover new things it takes some time to figure them out and how to use them. Humans are, by nature, mistrustful of new things. New foods, new technology, and new ideas. No matter how innocent something may truly be, there will often be naysayers convinced it’s a cause for fear. Sometimes those things are laughably innocent in the long run.

10. Dungeons and Dragons

Things young people enjoy have a long history of angering adults. From Harry Potter to dancing the Charleston, there will be no end of people convinced these things are the work of corrupting forces bent on destroying youth. People even accused Socrates of that once upon a time and today he’d bore most kids to tears.

In the 1980s it wasn’t Elvis’ hips or Pokemon that got people up in arms, it was Dungeons and Dragons. Today it’s considered the height of nerd culture. Back then it was the focal point of those who believed it was evil incarnate. Religious groups feared Dungeons and Dragons was exposing children to Satanism and witchcraft.

When 16-year-old James Dallas Egbert III went missing in 1979, blame was inexplicably placed on D&D. When the boy committed suicide, and then later another teen known to place also died by his own hand, the game’s detractors came after it with a vengeance. 

The mother of the second boy tried to sue game makers TSR. She even sued the school principal who, in game, put a curse on her son. She started a parents group against the game called Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, or BADD. They accused the game of not just exposing kids to satanism but sexual perversion, prostitution, cannibalism and more.

The campaign against the game continued for many years, well into the 2000s, even. Eventually, though, most people came to recognize the innocuous nature of role playing games and today few if any people give it a second thought. 

9. Tea and Coffee

Coffee and tea are two of the most popular beverages in the world. Tea consumption is getting close to 300 billion liters per year. Average coffee consumption has been pegged at 42.6 liters per person per year. That works out to a worldwide figure so large it’s essentially a nonsense number.

Despite the clear popularity of both of these beverages, they have not always been so beloved. In the 19th century, some besmirched the idea of women having afternoon tea. If a woman had time to sit and drink tea it must mean she was shirking her other duties. It was an example of the decay of the very fabric of the home itself. First it was tea, and then soon it would be open rebellion. 

Like tea, coffee had a rough go for a spell. In the 17th century, coffee made the transition from the Muslim world to Catholic Europe. They did not warmly embrace it. The Pope was asked to declare it the bitter invention of Satan himself. Fortunately for future coffee lovers, Pope Clemente tried the beverage and declared “we should cheat the devil by baptizing it.”

8. Potatoes

The humble potato is one of the world’s most versatile foods. French fries, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, scalloped potatoes, hash browns, the list goes on. It’s hard to imagine not liking a potato since they take to nearly any flavor so well and work in nearly any preparation from fried to boiled to soups and stews.

Potatoes came from South America, and when they arrived in Europe, it did not enthuse people. Europeans gave the lumpy, ugly little tubers the cold shoulder. As members of the nightshade family it was assumed a potato would give you anything from syphilis to leprosy. The potato was so hated that Germans suffering a famine still refused to eat them when they were given to them for free.

The potato got a massive PR overhaul after Prussians captured Antoine-Augustin Parmentier during the Seven Years’ War. As a prisoner, he stayed alive eating potatoes and came back home with tales of the miraculous food and its benefits.

7. Telephones

Phones are so ubiquitous these days that most of us have one in our pocket all the time. They’re indispensable and connect us to the world. People watch movies and play games on them. We interact with others all around the world. Even in countries with only the most tenuous infrastructures, where roads and plumbing barely exist, many people still have cell phones. 

In 1935, Clarence Day wrote a book called “Life with Father.” In it, he shared various anecdotes of growing up. Among them was the story of how his mother mistrusted machines. She felt it could explode or electrocute them in a storm. She refused to touch it entirely. 

The idea of a telephone was a curiosity. People understood it, and how it worked, but didn’t know why they’d want one. Who would you call if no one else had a phone? Day likened it to have a dive suit. Useful if you needed one, but pointless to most of the world. This, combined with the fear that it would somehow kill you, made it slow to spread.

6. Rock ‘n’ Roll

If you know the history of rock n roll then you may be aware of the moral panic it created in the 1950s and into the ’60s. For a time, Western society was in the grips of a panic created by fast beats and more than a little racism.

Rock ‘n’ roll was pioneered by African American musicians, born from things like jazz and the blues. White musicians adopted it and there was more than a little fear that the result would be black and white youths hanging out together, dancing, and otherwise enjoying themselves.

Sexuality was a large part of this fear as well. From Elvis shaking his hips to suggestive lyrics, parents and religious leaders of the nation thought music would corrupt their children. Ideas of free love, drug use, even questioning the government became themes in the ‘60s and that set off a whole new set of fears of corruption and danger.

In the end there have not been any credible links between music and the downfall of society but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to make the same links in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. Anytime a controversial musician appears, the same accusations appear. 

5. Stink

We know much more today about the nature of disease and how bacteria and viruses spread than we did in the 1800s. The idea of an airborne illness is not bizarre by any means, but our forefathers did have a few confused ideas. For one, there was the belief in miasmatic theory. The idea that stink caused sickness.

On some level this idea makes sense. Why wouldn’t the smell of death and decay be bad? During an outbreak of plague, if you can smell rot and disease, you’re going to want to stay away. And if you do get close and get sick, then it wouldn’t be a stretch to think the smell was to blame.

Interestingly enough, this belief is what led to the improvement of drainage and sewer systems in England. Getting the sewer smells away from homes was in part to free people from these potentially disease-causing odors. What they didn’t realize was that the bacteria was the culprit rather than the smell in most cases, but the end result was actually improved hygiene and less disease, so it had the intended result, albeit for different reasons.

4. Electricity

In a  technical way, electricity isn’t safe. Electrocution is a real risk and we need to be aware of it. But drowning is a risk of water, and we don’t let that stop us from enjoying the beach. That said, when electricity was first becoming a part of everyday life, people were afraid it was like pumping death along wires all across the city.

In 1889, a lineman named John Feeks was electrocuted while working on some phone lines in New York City. The normally low-current lines had accidentally crossed a high-current line elsewhere. The result was Feeks being electrocuted above the street in front of a crowd. His body began to smoke and blue flames were visible. He died quickly, but his body became tangled in the lines. For nearly an hour he smoked and sputtered and bled out as the crowd grew larger. It was a nightmare that didn’t seem to end. Thousands of people witnessed it firsthand.

Thanks to this horrible incident, fear of electricity ran rampant. The media warned any wire could kill anyone at any time. After two more deaths, people demanded restrictions on current. People refused to get doorbells installed. The fear was palpable. In the end, the concession of wires being buried seemed to ameliorate most concerns.

3. Purple

Purple was long considered a color reserved for royalty. It was not easy to make purple in the ancient world, the dye was extracted chiefly from a kind of sea snail. The process was long and expensive. Your average person on the street would never have a purple garment in their wardrobe.

Fast forward through history and the ability to produce purple is an everyday sort of thing. But that didn’t make it a good thing for everyone. Back in 1903, the media was trying to warn everyday citizens of the inherent dangers of living in a purple world.

According to the article, purple was a dangerous tint. If you were to paint your room purple and be exposed to it all day every day, your sad little human brain would collapse. One month of non-stop purple exposure would lead to utter madness.

The reason for this was that purple would travel from the optic nerve to your brain. In time, you would die from this. If you mix in other colors, you can preserve your sanity. 

2. Soda

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone espousing the health benefits of a Coke or Pepsi today. Yes, it’s full of sugar which is not necessarily the best thing in the world. But that was not the chief concern of officials back in the day when they warned of soda’s inherent dangers. In their estimation, the caffeine in soda was a gateway to utter depravity. 

The FDA once seized 40 barrels of Coca-Cola around the turn of the century. This was not when the brew was still laced with cocaine. Instead, the caffeine in it was blamed for turning a girl’s school into some kind of den for floozies. According to their report it causes “wild nocturnal freaks, violations of college rules and female proprieties, and even immoralities.” 

Obviously anything leading to wild nocturnal freaks was going to be dangerous. In the years since we’ve come to accept caffeine as a perfectly acceptable stimulant in moderate doses and upwards of 80% of the population consumes it every day.

1. Masturbation

The act of enjoying yourself by yourself has a long and storied history. In the Bible, Onan refused to sleep with his brother’s wife, and instead let his seed spill on the ground. That was considered a sin, and the Catholic Church still has it on the books as such today.

The result has been a few thousand years of shame and misinformation about the act. Myths about it causes blindness and hairy palms have existed for years as well. More insidious was the long held belief by doctors that masturbation was a symptom of or a cause of mental illness.

During the 1700s, when insane asylums were at the peak of awful treatment for the mentally ill, doctors noted that many patients would masturbate openly. This was taken as evidence that mental illness was clearly connected with the act itself. 

This belief was very widespread. In fact, it caused many people to fear the worst. Consider that Sylvester Graham, father of the popular S’mores ingredient graham crackers, invented his dry biscuit as a well to quell those urges and stop people from giving in to temptation. In his mind, as a Presbyterian Minister, physical pleasure was brought on by Satan anyway, so he was saving minds and souls by making you bored with your food.

Today we’re pretty much confident that masturbation had no sinister mental health effects, although it’s worth noting that there are some people who still believe it’s sinful and leads to laziness and poor character.

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  1. Tassie Devil on

    I love how Americans still use the imperial measuring system but insist on spelling litre there own way (liter)!

    • Hi Tassie Devil! Many of our writers are not American. It just so happens that this writer, Ian, is not in America and therefore uses the spellings that come naturally for him. We don’t feel like that’s something worth being nit-picky. 🙂

      While we’re on the topic of nit-picking and spelling though, it looks like your phone corrected you to say “there” instead of “their”. Watch out for that!

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