From pet squirrels to hired hermits, status symbols through the ages have taken some truly bizarre forms. For instance, did you know that blackened teeth, facial scars and deliberately deformed feet were all once regarded as highly desirable? But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So, read on to find out about 20 of the craziest status symbols that people have coveted over the centuries.
20. Pet squirrels – U.S., 18th century and later
Benjamin Franklin is best-known for his important role in the establishment of the United States of America. But it seems he found time in his busy Founding-Father schedule to write the odd poem. About squirrels. Yes, he certainly wrote at least one ode – in 1722 – to a sadly departed squirrel called Mungo. This was at a time when some Americans had decided that it was a good idea to keep the bushy tailed rodents as pets.
The squirrels in question were mostly of the gray variety, although red and even flying types were also kept as pets. They lived in the homes of the fashionable and wealthy – sometimes kept in check by a golden chain. And Franklin’s poem? In a letter accompanying Mungo’s epitaph he wrote, “Few squirrels were better accomplished, for he had a good education, had traveled far, and seen much of the world.” What a rodent!
19. Gout – ancient Greece
Gout is a rather unpleasant condition often involving a painful and unsightly swelling of the lower extremities. So as an affliction, it seems an unlikely candidate as a status symbol. But it’s the lifestyle factors which can cause the gout that give it a certain kind of cachet. Because one of the best ways to get it is to over-indulge in rich foods and luxury liquor.
Around 2,500 years ago, the famous Greek medical man Hippocrates called it “the arthritis of the rich.” Modern medicine does indeed recognize gout as a form of arthritis. So there you have it. It seems the rich will grab on to almost anything to reinforce their status and wealth. And that even includes a condition that you’d think anyone would avoid at all costs.
18. Mad shoes – Europe, 14th and 15th centuries
Of course, shoes with improbably high heels that make walking an ordeal are with us today. But back in the Middle Ages, status-conscious Europeans found a different way to make life difficult. This came in the shape – as in ludicrous shape – of a kind of footwear called the poulaine. By all accounts, these shoes were a must-have for the trend-followers of the day.
The footwear had an implausibly long pointed toe section. In fact, the point became so long as time passed that it had to be supported. You could achieve this by wearing bracelets around your calves. From this, a chain ran to the front of the footwear to support the bizarrely elongated pointed toe. But we think we’ll stick to a pair of everyday shoes, thanks. Ones we can actually walk in.
17. The whitest wedding cakes – Victorian Britain
Ask any modern nutritionist, and they will tell you that sugar is not the healthiest of foods. But when upper-class British people got married during the Victorian era they wanted a wedding cake that was as white as white could be. And the only way to achieve the right standard was to apparently use large amounts of sugar.
But not just any sugar would do. No, to make the icing as white as possible, the most highly refined sugar available was essential. That was also the most expensive. So only the wealthiest could afford to have the whitest of icing on their wedding cakes. Having a startlingly white cake was a status symbol denoting high social standing.
16. X-rays for fun – early 20th century
X-rays were discovered by accident in 1895 by German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen, and they have been a boon to medical diagnostics ever since. Despite the fact that the body is subjected to radioactivity, few of us would refuse an X-ray as the potential benefits far outweigh the risks. But would you have an X-ray just for the fun of it? Not many, we suspect, would.
Yet, when X-rays first became widely available – and before the potential dangers of radioactivity were properly understood – folk merrily X-rayed one another for entertainment. Apparently, you could even buy an X-ray kit to use in the privacy of your residence. How we laughed as we X-rayed the cat. Until all its fur fell out and pussy was no more. Definitely a case of “don’t try this at home folks.”
15. Tulipomania – 17th-century Holland
Their blooms brighten up our parks and gardens in the springtime. But how much would you pay for a tulip bulb? Well, in the early part of the 17th century, Dutch citizens were prepared to pay a proverbial king’s ransom. The market in tulip bulbs became an inexplicably white-hot furnace of speculation. People were prepared to pay insane amounts for rare tulip bulbs in the expectation that prices would go up forever.
But of course, they didn’t. In 1637 – in a financial paradigm familiar to this day – the bottom fell out of the market. Thousands of people were left with tulip bulbs that had lost their supposed astronomical value overnight. In his 1741 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Scottish author Charles Mackay recorded the multiple goods equivalent in value to a single tulip bulb. The list included four fat oxen, 1,000 pounds of cheese, two hogsheads of wine and ten other items.
14. The glamorous pineapple – 17th- and 18th-century England
The pineapple is a fruit that’s common enough on the table of an average home. But it wasn’t always so. Before this toothsome fruit was introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus, it was unknown. He’d picked some up during his second trip of exploration to the Americas. Though only one survived the journey, and it ended up in the hands of the Spanish monarch Ferdinand II.
Yet it was some time later, in the 18th century, that the pineapple became a status symbol of the highest order in the United Kingdom. Lords and ladies enthusiastically displayed the exotic fruit which with new heated greenhouse technology could now be grown in Britain. According to The Week, pineapples – so delicate in northern climes – cost the equivalent of some $8,000 to grow per fruit. As a result, they were seldom eaten and usually just exhibited.
13. Elaborate gaming pieces – 3000 B.C.
Ancient and elaborate gaming pieces are excellent evidence that the flaunting of status symbols is nothing new. In fact, the ones we’re referring to here are some 5,000 years old. Archeologists unearthed this rare find of exquisite gaming pieces in a burial mound near the city of Siirt in the south-east of modern Turkey.
But what exactly were these ancient artifacts? Well, back in 2013 Haluk Sağlamtimur of Turkey’s Ege University described the gaming pieces to Discovery Magazine. He said, “Some depict pigs, dogs and pyramids, others feature round and bullet shapes. We also found dice as well as three circular tokens made of white shell and topped with a black round stone.” So, even thousands of years ago it seems people were keen to own intricately wrought items – presumably in part to confirm their social status.
12. Hired hermits – 18th-century Britain
Just suppose for a moment that you are a fabulously wealthy landowner with an extensive country estate in the Britain of the 18th century. You want for nothing. So what can you acquire when you already own pretty much everything you possibly could? How about your very own hermit, living in seclusion somewhere in your many green acres? It sounds crazy, but it actually happened.
Professor Gordon Campbell wrote about the trend in his book The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Garden Gnome. He said than an aristocrat would hire one to live on his land often for a set term of perhaps seven years. The newly recruited hermit would be ordered to forsake normal personal hygiene and to live in the most frugal way possible – sometimes in a purpose-built hermitage. After their term was up, the hermit was often paid enough to avoid work for life. Unfortunately, the practice died out long ago. So if you’re considering it as a career opportunity, you’ve missed the boat.
11. Black teeth – 19th-century Japan
Americans will spend plenty of dollars to have gleaming white teeth. But in a different place and time it turns out the opposite was true. In 19th century Japan, wealthy women actually laid out money to make their teeth jet black. Black things in general – such as highly burnished lacquer – were considered the height of beauty. And this aesthetic was extended to teeth, too.
Upper-class Japanese women blackened their teeth with an evil-sounding brew of rice wine, tea, vinegar and iron filings, according to The Vintage News. It was also believed that the blacker your teeth, the more beautiful and healthy you were. It was also a sure indicator of high social status. But visit Japan today, and you won’t find women with mouthfuls of black teeth. Now, they’re as keen as Americans on sparkling whiteness.
10. Chickens in Silicon Valley – U.S., 21st century
Raising chickens is surely one of the most rural of endeavors. After all, prime chicken meat and fresh eggs are available at reasonable prices in every neighborhood food store. So why would you go to the trouble of keeping chickens yourself? Try telling that to some of the more prosperous citizens of California’s high-tech hotspot: Silicon Valley.
Many Silicon Valley hipsters who aren’t short of a dollar or two have decided that a few chickens in their backyard is just the thing. The Washington Post notes that “egg-laying chickens are now a trendy, eco-conscious humblebrag on par with driving a Tesla.” And a desirable chicken coop can apparently cost up to $20,000. Yep, it seems that being at the forefront of fashion in Silicon Valley is both demanding and expensive.
9. Children’s shoes – ancient Rome
Top-dollar adult shoes can certainly be a major status symbol in our modern world. But this isn’t the case with children’s shoes. Yet the ancient Romans saw things very differently. The evidence for strange attitudes to children’s footwear comes from an archeological site in Britain – a Roman fort called Vindolanda. Researchers there uncovered an astonishing 4,000 shoes dating from the first to the fourth centuries A.D.
And analysis of the shoes and boots showed that an infant’s footwear reflected the status of their parents. Infant boots found in the non-ranking men’s barracks were designed just like those worn by their fathers. But another shoe found in accommodation occupied by Flavius Cerialis – a senior commander – was completely different. It was designed along the same lines as the type of shoe worn by a high-status individual. So the wealthier you were, the fancier your kids’ footwear was.
8. Pointless buildings – U.K., 18th century
How about spending a load of money on a building which has no practical purpose whatsoever? Sounds crazy, right? But that’s just what various members of Britain’s aristocratic class did during the 18th century. These pointless buildings are aptly known as “follies.” And the evidence still dots the UK’s cities and countryside. Wealthy landowners erected everything from fake Greek temples to Egyptian pyramids on their estates.
If you ever visit Edinburgh, you’ll see a splendid example of a city folly. A prominent feature of the Scottish capital’s skyline is Calton Hill, which is dominated by a full-size set of Greek temple columns modeled on the Parthenon in Athens. But what on earth drove this expensive hobby? Perhaps the only feasible conclusion is that follies were simply flamboyant status symbols wrought from stone by people with more money than sense.
7. Ornamental swords – various locations through history
The first swords were probably made around 5,000 years ago during the Bronze Age. Of course, their purpose is all too clear – they are deadly weapons. Yet throughout the ages, the sword has had a much more significant role in human culture than its overt purpose as a tool for killing people. In some cases, swords have even taken on a mystical character. For example, think of Excalibur – the sword that King Arthur plucked from a stone, according to English mythology.
And swords could certainly be status symbols. Highly ornate ones – with decorations such as precious gems and gold inlay that were quite unnecessary in functional terms – have existed in many places over the centuries. They were not just seen on the battlefield, either. Men of high status would wear their swords slung from belts in everyday life – helping to mark them out as important people.
6. Chocolate – France, 18th century
Today, any neighborhood store has a choice of chocolates in its wares. But at one time, chocolate was far from an everyday shopping item. For the French aristocracy in the 18th century, eating chocolate was a rare luxury that signaled their elevated status. In fact, the peasantry of the time would likely never even have seen chocolate. In a display of conspicuous consumption, the upper classes indulged in chocolate as cookies, as a drink and with various other elaborate confectioneries such as chocolate sugared almonds.
As the 18th century rolled on, the increasingly wealthy middle classes began to cotton on to chocolate. And by the 19th century it was not just the preserve of the extremely wealthy. Yet the confectionery retained its cachet. Consuming chocolate could even be seen as an aspirational activity as the French bourgeoisie’s class pretensions became more ambitious. Eat chocolate and become posh seems to have been the faintly bizarre belief.
5. Dentures – Britain, 20th century
Nowadays, bad teeth and the need to wear dentures as a replacement for lost molars are seen as a sure sign of low status and poverty. Yet in Britain until quite late in the 20th century false teeth were actually seen as preferable to real ones by some. In 1996 Dr. Peter Gordon told The Independent newspaper about his experience of working as a dentist in an English city some years earlier.
Gordon remembered, “When I qualified, in Sheffield in the 1960s, some people still regarded having dentures as a status symbol… In the past some young women had all their teeth taken out and replaced by dentures as a 21st birthday present, or as a form of dowry before marriage.” You’d be hard pressed to find anybody today who would believe dentures were a status symbol of any kind.
4. Facial scars – Germany and Austria, 19th and 20th centuries
Few people today would regard scars – especially conspicuous ones on the face – as status symbols. But there was time when for men of a certain class, facial scars were both a status symbol and a badge of honor. We’re talking about Germany and Austria in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the dueling habits of young men there.
The art of fencing was highly popular among young upper-class men. And unlike in modern competition, when they fought little or no facial protection was worn. The eyes would sometimes be protected, but other parts of the face were left unguarded. And so, many Germans and Austrians sported deep scars on their faces where they’d been struck by an opponent’s rapier. Yep, it was a painful and gory way to earn a status symbol.
3. Footbinding – China until 1949
The grim practice of footbinding persisted in China for some 1,000 years until it was finally eradicated after Mao Zedong’s Communists came to power in 1949. Though it was only women who faced this painful and crippling ordeal. From as young as three, the feet of girls would be tightly bandaged to alter their development.
In fact, the binding – carried out by female relatives – effectively created grotesquely deformed feet. The idea was to meet a perverse standard of beauty known as the “golden lotus.” This stipulated that the perfect length of a female foot was just three inches. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, footbinding could lead to “paralysis, gangrene, ulceration, or death…”
2. Egyptian mummy unwrapping – Victorian Britain
The British Victorians loved a social gathering as much as the next 19th-century citizen. But one fad pursued by the fashionable was macabre to say the least. It became quite the thing to attend a social event where the centerpiece of the evening was the unwrapping of a genuine ancient Egyptian mummy. Of course, if you unwrap a mummy you’ll find one thing for certain – a moldering corpse.
One Thomas Pettigrew became the best known exponent of the public mummy unwrapping. Yep, he apparently performed this bizarre act before crowds of up to 3,000 people. The phenomenon came at the height of a fascination with all things ancient Egyptian that swept Britain. Egyptologist John J. Johnston probably spoke for most of us when he told Vice in 2016 that, “These unrolling parties were disgusting really. Bodies are supposed to be treated with respect – you can’t deal with people in that way.”
1. Aluminum – France, 19th century
We regard aluminum as a cheap and light metal with a variety of everyday purposes from bicycle frames to pots and pans. And we might well view aluminum as a commonplace material, since it’s the most prevalent metal in the earth. But it wasn’t extracted and used in a commercial way until the 19th century. At first, it was actually regarded as a wondrous substance – more valuable than gold.
In the 21st century, we’d expect to find aluminum cutlery in the cheapest of diners or canteens. Yet in France during the 19th century, knives and forks made from aluminum were regarded as highly valuable and exotic. France’s Napoleon III, for example, owned a full aluminum flatware set which was regarded as thoroughly suitable for someone with imperial status.