Many of the commonplace items we now take for granted almost died due to early cancellation culture. But were those initial fears of evil, immorality, or danger justified? Or did our forefathers overreact?
Build For Tomorrow is a podcast that investigates why people freak out when exposed to new things, ranging from refrigerators to teddy bears. Read on to see how today’s daily necessities sparked angst and angry letters in the past — and to consider what we’re overreacting to now.
1. A cup of coffee
Coffee has bred a culture of suspicion for centuries. It was outlawed in Mecca in 1511 for encouraging “radical thinking.” Venetian clergy, a century later, saw something more sinister and condemned “Satan’s bitter invention.” When asked to comment, Pope Clement VIII surprisingly enjoyed it so much that he gave his blessing, even saying, “This devil’s drink is so delicious… we should cheat the devil by baptizing it,” paving the way for today’s Italian coffee culture.
Anyone caught drinking coffee in the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century faced severe punishment: repeat offenders were to be sewn into a bag and thrown into the Bosporus.
Meanwhile, as people realized that coffee was a more energizing way to start the day, it gradually replaced wine and beer as the preferred breakfast beverage. When the beer industry protested in 1777, Frederick the Great of Prussia ordered his subjects to stop drinking coffee and instead drink beer for breakfast.
Artists and merchants alike flocked to London coffee shops at the same time. The Boston Tea Party cemented America’s commitment to the bitter beverage. As the coffee trade grew in popularity, Thomas Jefferson declared it “the favorite drink of the civilized world,” and we haven’t looked back.
The modern refrigerator was dubbed “unnatural” and “unhealthy” by big business. After all, the ice industry in the 1800s employed 90,000 people and was worth $660 million (in 2010 dollars). Ice was America’s second most valuable export after cotton.
That’s why, in the early twentieth century, door-to-door ice delivery men waged a fierce campaign to keep the technology at bay and protect their livelihoods. They did have a legitimate gripe: some of the first electric refrigerators leaked toxic methyl chloride on occasion. The first “modern” refrigerator cost $520 in 1927, whereas a brand-new Model T cost only $360!
On the other hand, the ice industry competes with dripless convenience, especially after Freon made the appliances less expensive and safer. The icemen were further thawed out by New Deal programs that brought electricity to rural America. By 1940, 44% of homes had a refrigerator. They were found in 90% of urban homes by 1950.
Since then, the icemen have vanished, and our relationship with food has changed dramatically.
3. The bicycle.
Is your sunny afternoon bicycle ride a sign of fitness, relaxation, or something much more sinister?
The public was concerned about early “velocipede riders'” mental fitness. The New York Times reported in 1894 that an increase in “lunacy” in England “points directly to bicycle riders… there is not the slightest doubt that bicycle riding leads to mental weakness, general lunacy, and homicidal mania.”
“This somewhat violent form of recreation left its unmistakable traces upon the delicate feminine frame,” including an enlarged waist, more masculine hands and feet, and the terrifying “bicycle face,” as “Wheelwomen” were warned.
The bicycle’s effects on propriety were far worse than these physical ailments.
According to the New York Times, “a large number of our female bicyclists wear shorter dresses than the laws of morality and decency permit, thereby inviting the depraved and immoral to engage in inappropriate conversations and remarks.” And this was decades before the invention of spandex.
Cycling clubs and races helped spread the sport as cities paved roads. What about the ladies? They influenced new step-through designs to accommodate skirts and take advantage of the personal mobility provided by a bicycle. Until the automobile took over, many people saw biking as a faster and easier way to deal with horses. For many decades after that, the bicycle was regarded solely as a child’s toy.
4. Birthday celebrations
Will you consider the children and the disastrous consequences of birthday parties?
Birthday parties became popular in the 1800s after millennia of people not knowing (or remembering) their birthdays. However, many people were concerned that these cake-and-presents parties were corrupting the very children they were supposed to honor. Indeed, according to one 1864 article, children should celebrate by being “a present to anyone who has troubled them,” giving gifts to essential adults in their lives and providing a meal to a low-income family.
The danger did not stop with the celebrant.
The “birthday party habit… sows dangerous seeds for the future in child character and habits,” the Ladies’ Home Journal warned in 1913. The games and “nervous excitement” enticed kids to join the rivalry, which is “poor preparation for any potentially successful body or mind.” Let’s not even get started on the sugary cake.
Emerging marketers, on the other hand, saw an opportunity. In the 1920s, party-planning books advised parents on throwing the right kind of party, complete with cake, presents, and games — but they ignored the risk of corruption. It was soon just a case of peer pressure. Miniature golf courses, swimming pools, and McDonald’s opened after World War II, and today’s parents can rent out trampoline parks, inflatable bounce houses, and stores where kids can make their sundaes or teddy bears.
5. Teddy Bears
Have you ever been concerned that the teddy bear would suffocate your natural maternal instincts? As word of the teddy bear tribute to President Theodore Roosevelt spread, pearl-clutches warned that if teddy bears were not stopped, “race suicide” would result.
A priest named Rev. Michael Esper of St. Joseph, Michigan led the anti-bear movement. “It is a monstrous crime to do anything that will tend to destroy [maternal] instincts,” he warned his congregation in a fiery 1907 sermon. That’s what the ‘Teddy Bear’ is doing, and it’s why it’ll play a role in the race suicide crisis.”
After that, word spread quickly. According to the Idaho Recorder, the teddy bear is “preventing children from experiencing the joy of caring for a doll.” He can’t wear pretty dresses or delicate underwear, and the little girl who keeps him as a pet has no incentive to make them. As a result, she loses the education that comes with wearing delicate clothing. For boys, the Teddy bear is fine, but not for girls.”
Who’d have guessed the sweet teddy bear could be so destructive?
Once again, popular culture aided in the survival of the teddy bear. In 1907, teddies appeared on jigsaw puzzles, greeting cards, and automobile accessories, and “The Teddy Bear Two-Step” became popular in dance halls. Patterns were sold by sewing companies so that girls could make tiny outfits for their bears, allowing them to express their maternal instincts. More than a million bears were sold that year, and the global market for stuffed animals and plush toys is now worth nearly $8 billion.
6. Reflective surfaces
Mirrors have long been reviled as sources of sinful vanity that can shatter a person’s self-esteem. Vanity is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins. Not to mention the fact that Narcissus’ demise began when he saw his reflection. There’s a reason why mirrored cabinets are called “vanities.”
Besides, there had been centuries of concern that mirrors could be used as magical portals.
That’s why it was so alarming when modern manufacturing made mirrors affordable in the mid-nineteenth century. Many people feared that vanity gone wild would put a stop to society’s progress as mirrors began to appear in umbrella tops, powder cases, and restrooms. People would be so preoccupied with themselves that they would be unable to connect.
Pedestrian accidents have been blamed on people wandering into busy streets while staring at their reflections in mirrors. Elevator operators complained that women spent so much time admiring themselves that operations were slowed.
People eventually learned to coexist with ubiquitous mirrors in lobbies and pockets, and we even started paying attention to one another again, at least until the smartphone made its way into our bags.
7. Graphic Novels
When the United States Senate gets involved, you know something isn’t right. The newly formed Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency looked into the link between comic books and crime in 1954. This came after a decade of comic book burnings, state bans, and hand wringing as the country was hit by a “tidal wave of juvenile delinquency.”
What was the content of these dreadful books? They weren’t intended for children, in fact. They were designed for young men, particularly soldiers, who were the target market. During WWII, soldiers bought ten times more comics than traditional magazines, causing circulation to triple. When those soldiers returned home, they demanded horror, crime, supernatural comics, and publishers obliged.
Children, of course, got their hands on them. Many people were concerned that glamorizing fictional characters would pollute the hearts and minds of young readers, who saw comics as a “national disgrace” linked to heinous crimes.
Soon after the 1954 hearings, the industry formed its own self-censoring Comics Code Authority to sanitize more violent art while appealing to younger, more innocent audiences.
Elevators became commonplace as the first skyscrapers rose, as did fears of “elevator sickness.” In the 1890s, doctors warned that the rising motion could cause “brain fever,” as well as nausea and faintness. The “disordered condition of the nerves” was thought to be caused by frequent descents, especially when an elevator fell too quickly.
Despite the fact that passenger elevators have existed since the 1850s,
Many of the modern safety features we take for granted were absent in the early ones, leading to fears of broken cables and falling into open shafts.
Elevators became faster and safer over time. To prevent people from stumbling into the shaft, automatic doors closed. Rides became safer and smoother thanks to improved speed controls and hydraulics. Bumpers prevented people from being crushed by closing doors.
Elevators are no longer just a convenience. They’re frequently required in multi-story buildings to ensure that everyone has equal access — access that doesn’t cause “brain fever.”
Remember when reading was frowned upon unless you were reading the Bible or an ancient text? Isn’t that correct? Let’s go back to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the fight against novels was very real.
Some saw the novel as a national enemy in the nineteenth century, accusing it of “sapping the minds of our youths of all that is manliest and noblest.”
Popular dime novels “clogged the mind,” diverting readers’ attention away from more important, serious books such as the Bible.
Worse, novels were associated with criminal activity and hooliganism, with newspaper reports warning of the perils of suggestion.
Even in the 1930s, some people worried that children who chose to read were doing something wrong. The St. Petersburg Times recommended that parents limit the number of books available to their children and make reading “inconvenient except at set times” in 1938.
Doesn’t this sound a lot like screen time?
Fortunately, morality types quickly became concerned about comic books, making the novel appear far less dangerous.
People used to believe that the Earth was hollow and that hell was located directly beneath their feet.
This lingering fear explains why early subway systems received such a bad reputation.
According to one Boston religious leader, the subway was a “project of Lucifer himself,” while others warned that it “disturbed the dead” as excavators stumbled upon unmarked graves. Wasn’t the air beneath the ground dangerous to breathe?
Early subway stations were whitewashed and brightly lit with the latest electric lights to allay these fears. As people entered the stations, their fear was replaced by awe at the engineering marvel. The word got out. The ease of use certainly helped, especially since the nation’s first subway system allowed riders to avoid Boston’s notorious traffic.
Subways were trusted as shelters for air raids and potential nuclear attacks decades later. Today, 180 subway systems transport billions of people every year.
Did you know that in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that pinball required more skill than chance?
Pinball machines had been banned for decades and were only found in seedy bars and basements by that time. Because early machines lacked flippers, the game was based solely on chance, making it child-corrupting gambling.
Authorities were concerned that pinball would encourage kids to skip school and eat less. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia wrote in a Supreme Court filing that pinball machines robbed the “pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes were given to them as lunch money.”
Not to mention the ties to the mafia.
Following that, there were dramatic Prohibition-style raids, with cops rounding up machines for Mayor La Guardia to smash with hammers.
The industry made the same argument to the New York City Council two years after the Supreme Court ruling, with a live demonstration by Roger Sharpe, the best player they could find. The city department that would have received $1.5 million in license fees was ecstatic when the previous big ban was overturned.