Humans have always been obsessed with their social status. The wealthy project their status through symbols such as jewels, extravagant clothing, and other worldly possessions. A simple stroll through social media will tell you what the rich and famous are flaunting today, but status symbols are nothing new. They have existed for centuries, and some of the status symbols from the past may even seem weird today. From pineapples and tulips to lawns and mummies, here are 10 strange things that were once considered a status symbol.
1. Black Teeth
If you brush, floss, and do everything your dentist recommends to keep your pearly whites sparkling, the concept of teeth blackening may sound unappealing or downright outrageous to you. However, it was once commonly practiced in Oceanic and Southeast Asian cultures, especially in Japan, where it was called “ohaguro.”
The practice existed there in one form or the other for hundreds of years until the end of the Meiji period. The Japanese considered things that were pitch black, for example, glaze-like lacquer extraordinarily beautiful. The term “ohaguro” denoted aristocracy. At the Imperial Palace of Kyoto, it was called “fushimizu.” Civilians, on the other hand, used various terms to describe the practice.
The mention of ohaguro can be found in classic Japanese literature such as Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari and The Tale of Genji. Towards the end of the Heian period, when aristocratic women and men celebrated reaching puberty, various samurai clans and people belonging to the elite class dyed their teeth.
Particularly, the imperial family as well as other aristocrats blackened their teeth. The ritual was also performed in the imperial household until the Edo era ended.
Throughout the following centuries, teeth blackening was practiced in various parts of Japan. Traditionally, iron fillings would be soaked in sake or tea. The liquid would turn black after the oxidation of iron. They would then add various spices such as anise, cloves, and cinnamon to the dye to reduce its harsh taste.
If you have a house in the suburbs with a perfectly manicured lawn, you must know how much work goes into keeping it beautiful. You regularly mow, fertilize, aerate, and water your lawn to keep up its appearance, and in some ways, you take pride in it too. However, have you ever wondered how lawns became such an integral part of a house? Well, as it turns out, grassy lawns originated as a status symbol!
Today, lawns differ greatly from pastures, which are specifically for grazing animals. However, back in the day, the difference between the two was not as clear. Back then, keeping lawns in the best shape required hard work and effort. Therefore, most of the open spaces that passed as “lawns” were simply pastures that were grazed by animals and livestock.
However, by the 17th and 18th centuries, lawns became more than just pastures. Aristocrats in England started converting old fortified castles into countryside manor houses. The rich obviously did not want people to think they might be farmers.
So, they started planting grass instead of crops on the most visible parts of their properties. Only an affluent person could waste good land like that. Thus, lawns became a status symbol.
When the British colonized America, they brought that status symbol with them. Thus, plantation homes, which were the American version of English manor houses, came with a prominent grassy lawn. (1, 2)
Although pineapples are native to South America, they were also found on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. That is where Christopher Columbus first saw this unusual-looking fruit with a spiky crown on its head. In 1493, Columbus brought pineapples back to Spain, where people were quickly taken by the sweet taste of this exotic fruit.
So, they tried to grow it themselves, but their efforts were in vain because pineapples cannot grow outside of a tropical climate. When the Europeans failed to grow it, their only choice was to import the fruit from across the Atlantic Ocean. That was a very expensive process that often resulted in the fruit getting bruised and rotten.
In the 17th century, pineapples started to be grown in hothouses in the Netherlands and England, but they were still high in demand and low in supply, which meant that only the extremely wealthy people could afford to buy them. It was the fruit of the monarchs and the royalties. Naturally, it started symbolizing opulence and luxury.
Pineapples were just as revered in the American colonies. A special import from the Caribbean Islands, pineapples were also expensive in America. In fact, a single pineapple could cost as much as $8,000 in today’s money. When affluent colonists threw dinner parties, they would display a prized pineapple as the centerpiece. The fruit would symbolize their wealth, status, and hospitality.
4. Ornamental Hermits
Today, it is common for people to decorate their gardens with gnome statues, but did you know that in the 18th century, wealthy estate owners hired real people as garden ornaments?
As unbelievable as that sounds, garden hermits were extremely popular among landowners and aristocrats. These ornamental hermits were real people who were paid to dress up as druids and remain on-site permanently.
They would grow their hair long and not wash for years. They would live in caves, shacks, and other hermitages that were built in a rustic fashion in the gardens.
In turn, the owners would care for them, feed them, consult them for advice, and display them for entertainment. Although the practice was mainly common in England, it found its way to Ireland and Scotland as well. (1, 2)
This is a painful one!
“Footbinding” refers to the practice of breaking and tightly binding the feet of young girls with the aim to change the size and shape of their feet. Feet that were altered this way were called “lotus feet,” and they required special shoes that were known as “lotus shoes.” The custom originated in 10th century China just before or during the Song Dynasty.
Bound feet were considered a mark of beauty and a status symbol. It was generally assumed that women who had bound feet did not need to work, which meant they had to be wealthy. Though it started off as a custom of the elite classes, the practice became widespread within the next two hundred years.
Footbinding practices and applications used to vary. The more severe forms of this practice developed in the 16th century. According to most estimates, by the 19th century, around 50% of Chinese women had bound feet, and almost 100% of the upper-class women had bound feet. In some areas of the country, footbinding was practiced to increase the marriage prospects of women.
However, the extremely painful practice significantly reduced the mobility of the subjects, and it often resulted in a lifelong disability. Women who had lotus feet were unable to walk quickly, and they always experienced discomfort and pain while walking.