6. Mummy Unwrapping
When we talk about archaeology today, we imagine a team of experts, carefully sweeping dirt away with small brushes to delicately uncover the remains of people, architecture, and artifacts that have been lost for millennia. However, for the Victorians, archaeology was all about showmanship and spectacle, which led to one of the most macabre and bizarre practices of the 19th century – mummy unwrapping at parties.
In 1834, a surgeon and antiquarian named Thomas Pettigrew hosted an exclusive event that promised its guests the night of a lifetime. The lucky Londoners that managed to get a ticket to the sold-out event were in for a special treat. In front of a live audience, Pettigrew, who was an expert on Ancient Egyptian mummies, slowly unwrapped an authentic, Egyptian mummy that belonged to the 21st dynasty and performed an autopsy.
Mummy unwrapping was one of the many symptoms of Egyptomania that took hold of England in the 19th century, and these parties became wildly popular among the elite classes. The combination of Egypt, science, and the macabre proved to be irresistible to the Victorians, and being able to attend these parties became a status symbol. (1, 2)
In the early 17th century, tulips played a critical role in the Dutch economy, and it led to one of the earliest speculative bubbles in the history of mankind. This strange phenomenon came to be known as “Tulip Mania,” and it was also the reason for the infamous economic crash.
Though the world associates tulips with the Netherlands, the flower’s origin can be found in the Middle East. In the 16th century, tulips arrived in Europe, and botanist Carolus Clusius was among the first few to cultivate them. He also grew a large crop of tulips between 1593 and 1609 in the botanical gardens of the University of Leiden.
Wealthy Dutch people were quickly taken by the flower’s intense and varied colors, and tulips soon became a status symbol for those who could afford them. It took years to cultivate certain types of tulips that came with stunning, mosaic-like petals. These tulips became extremely valuable in trade.
By 1637, tulip bulb prices skyrocketed, and at one point, certain specimens could bring over ten times the average yearly household income in the Netherlands! Although extraordinarily high market prices combined with poor financial regulations eventually caused the bubble to collapse, tulips were the symbol of Dutch aristocracy for a significant amount of time. (1, 2)
Ever thought a disease could be considered a status symbol? Most people would answer that with a resounding “No!” However, historically, gout has been considered as “rich man’s disease” or as “the disease of kings.”
Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis that is characterized by red, hot, tender, and swollen joints. The condition is extremely painful and the pain reaches maximum intensity within 12 hours. In half of the cases, gout affects the joint that is located at the base of the big toe.
The disease occurs due to consistently high levels of uric acid in the blood. A combination of genetic factors, diet, and other health issues may lead to this disease. Those who drink sugar-sweetened beverages or beer regularly are prone to developing gout. Being overweight and eating food items that are rich in purines, for example, shellfish, liver, and anchovies, can also cause gout.
In ancient times, only the wealthy could afford foods that lead to gout, and since the disease mainly occurred in the elite classes, it was known as the “rich man’s disease,” and if someone was afflicted with it, the general assumption was that the person must be rich. (1, 2)
In 1895, a German physicist and mechanical engineer named Wilhelm Roentgen discovered a way to look inside the body without the means of surgery. During an experiment, he accidentally discovered the x-ray. Today, x-ray imaging has revolutionized medical diagnosis, and x-rays have also made a significant impact on chemistry, science, and several other branches of science.
However, when the x-ray machines were first introduced, they were a bit of a novelty item, and people developed a fascination for seeing an image of their bones even if they did not need it for diagnostic purposes. In the late 19th and early 20th century, people thought x-rays were harmless, and x-ray machines were in vogue.
In one instance, x-ray images were used to excite the children at a birthday party. X-ray machines were also found at carnivals and in theatrical shows as a curiosity piece. Businesses would also use the words “x-ray” as a promotional gimmick for products such as stove polish and headache tablets. All that led to the “x-ray mania” that took a hold of people, especially the rich who could afford to take the images unnecessarily. (1, 2)
10. Dueling scar
While we have seen instances of body modification as a symbol of status, this one is a bit different. Since early 1825, dueling scars have been considered a “badge of honor.” Also known as “smite” and “the bragging scar,” the scars were hugely popular among upper-class Germans and Austrians, especially among men involved in academic fencing.
The dueling scar was seen as a mark of honor and class because dueling societies were somewhat of a cherished novelty at Austrian and German universities. University students would duel and scar each other to project their status. Back then, men with dueling scars were also considered to be “good husband material.” Dueling scars are one of the earliest examples of scarification in European society. (1, 2)