A visitor from 100 years ago would be confused by our selfies and our strange toys — but they would understand the need to show off. Throughout history, people have had status symbols. Sometimes, these things have been gold and jewels. But sometimes, they’re a bit weirder. Here are 10 bizarre status symbols from the past.
Image: John Rose (1619–1677), the Royal Gardener, Presenting a Pineapple to King Charles II (1630–1685) by Thomas Stewart, 1783
In the 17th and 18th centuries, pineapples were a very important status symbol. A homegrown pineapple was equivalent to a £5,000 investment today — so any fruit was prominently displayed, rather than eaten. Pineapples would sit on mantles for months, merrily rotting away. If you weren’t rich enough to have a pineapple of your very own, you could rent one for an evening.
More information: The Pineapple: King of Fruits by Francesca Beauman
The fad that nearly bankrupted a country. 17th century Holland went absolutely crazy for the flower. As the center of the East Indies trade, the nation’s merchants displayed their new wealth by surrounding their estates with gardens. And the tulip, with colors brighter than anything anyone had seen before, took center stage. Since it takes seven years for a bulb to flower, the tulip craze became a speculative market. At its height, a bulb could cost as much as ten times the yearly income of a skilled craftsman. Bulbs exchanged hands several times a day. The flowers cost thousands of guilders. And then, panic set in when buyers in Haarlem didn’t show up for a bulb auction. Demand vanished and tulips suddenly became worthless.
Now they’re just how we pass the time, but when they first started appearing, board games were given to show status. Mark Hall, n historian at the Perth Museum & Art Gallery who co-authored a paper on the spread of board games, told Discovery News in 2012:
Many of the first board games appear to have been diplomatic gifts to signify status. We have early examples of quite splendid playing pieces belonging to elite, privileged people.
The Crackowe (or poulaine, the name of the pointed tip) was a long pointed shoe popular in the late Middle Ages. The tip was anywhere from six to twenty-four inches in length. As is the case with so many status symbols, these absurd shoes showed that the wearer was wealthy because the impracticality of them proved they didn’t have to do work. Edward III of England even restricted shoe length to six inches for commoners, fifteen inches for gentlemen, and longer tips for the nobility.
Image: Marzipan Sculptures in Lübeck by Bob Gaffney/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Spreading to Europe from Africa and the Middle East, giant displays of sugar were a kind of conspicuous consumption that reinforced wealth and power. Because sugar was rare and expensive, these displays — called subtleties — were initially only available to the king, the nobility, the knighthood, and the church. And, of course, sugar started to take on a political dimension. “Heretics” and politicians were mocked using sugar. At the coronation of Henry VI, each course was followed by a “subtlety” that confirmed the king’s rights, powers, and sometimes his goals as king. And one Chancellor of Oxford began a banquet with a sugar subtlety of the university, where a sugar Chancellor, surrounded by sugar professors, presented Latin verses to a sugar king.
Related to the sugar obsession was the Victorian practice of blackening your teeth, as a sign that you could afford the teeth-rotting substance. Modifying teeth as a status symbol has been pervasive throughout many cultures: The Mayans sharpened their teeth to points to look fierce, the Vikings filed lines into theirs, and Japanese women blackened their teeth (until this was banned in 1870) as a sign of maturity.
Image: Folly in St. Anne’s Park by William Murphy/flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
We’ve covered the history of hermits before — but it always bears repeating that English and German nobles thought no estate was complete without a hermitage. Not an authentic one, of course, but one they built and then hired a “hermit” to live in it. The hired hermit was basically an actor whose role required poor grooming, carrying heavy books, and preaching to guests.
In addition to hermits, 18th century rich people also tended to build completely ornamental buildings. The height of folly would definitely be follies of ruins. Fake ruins built on estates to symbolize desired virtues of other times and places.
The people of 16th and 17th centuries were convinced that water spread illness and that they had discovered a much better way to keep clean: shirts and underwear. A commenter wrote in 1626 that a shirt “serves to keep the body clean” more “effectively than the steam-baths of the ancients who were denied the use and convenience of linen.” Of course, you couldn’t prove how clean you were by showing your linen underwear, but clean white collars and cuffs were symbols of a clean body and a clean mind. Which is why a rich Tudor would never allow his portrait to lack collars or cuffs.
How to show your baby’s place in the world? Gilding the actual child seems like a bad idea — so instead, why not dress them in perfect replicas of their fathers’ shoes? A Roman fort in Northern England has unearthed baby shoes made to look like soldiers shoes in the barracks and a miniature version of a high-status man’s boot in the base commander’s quarters. Archeologist Elizabeth Greene said:
The shoe is for a child too young to walk, but it boasts a full set of iron studs on the sole, just as a man’s boot would. The expensive material suggests the shoe was high quality, Greene said. The upper part of the shoe is leather, cut into an elaborate fishnet pattern. Not only does the pattern show off workmanship, it would have revealed colored socks underneath, which the ancient Romans also used to denote status.
Greene also said that this only made sense if the children were expected to march on parade along with the adults:
Going back to the military, it is very hierarchical and it would most definitely be the kind of place where status mattered – and everything about status mattered. The fact we can see (evidence of) this, and you could visually show that status when even an infant boot of 10 cm mimics the adult shoe, shows that children were being held to sartorial expectations of class, and that doesn’t mean anything unless they played a public role, unless these infants were out on parade.
Image: X-Ray by Adrian Barnes/flickr/CC BY 2.0
Along with radium fashion, Americans in the early 20th century were enamored with the magical ability of X-rays to take pictures of their skeletons. Crowds gathered at the machines to “see their bones” and owning your own personal X-ray picture became a status symbol.
Additional reporting by Abhimanyu Das
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