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5 Weird Lifehacks From History (That Actually Worked)

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There are few topics on the internet as popular as life hacks — those superior secret strategies which contain sage and ancient knowledge. Like how to turn old CD-ROM towers into bagel holders. But this isn’t new. The desire to spend ten times as long trying to find a shortcut around a problem instead of simply doing it the regular way has been part of human DNA since the beginning. Our ancestors had their own hilarious, now-antiquated life hacks. For example …

5 Fake Your Virginity By Stuffing A Fish Bladder Into Your Vagina

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Today, the only thing being a virgin is good for is satanic sacrifice or bonding with a future mass shooter. But once upon a time, a woman’s most precious possession was her virtue. So throughout history, girls have crafted bloody booby traps in order to fool their new husbands into thinking they’re the first to pierce the virginal veil.

Unfortunately, these artificial hymens were the second-worst thing they’d have to shove up there during their wedding night. That’s because 9 out of 10 crones recommended using a fish bladder, nature’s squib, to hold the fake bloody charge. Another popular stocking stuffer was a bird’s intestines, which presumably started the tradition of always serving chicken at a wedding.

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For the red stuff, the choices were more obvious but no less gross. Fresh pig blood worked like a charm, but the Trotula Manuscript, aka Medieval Cosmo, included a handy hack to efficiently get your hands on real vaginal blood. All you had to do was put “a leech very cautiously on the labia, taking care lest it slip inside by mistake.” We’ve never heard a better reason to stay a virgin.

4 Calm Ocean Waters With Olive Oil

It’s an old cooking trick, pouring oil into boiling water. It calms down the water, preventing it from boiling over, and adds much-needed calories to boring H2O. But it turns out that what our old-timey grandmas used to do to their pots, our old-timey sailors did to entire seas.

For the smoothest of sailing, captains would have someone (often a small child) stand on the prow and dump out jugs of oil. This emergency “storm oil” would create a small film over the water surrounding the boat, supposedly making it too slippery for gale winds to lift the water, and maybe even lowering wind speed by reducing sea spray. As little as a gallon of vegetable oil (or a not-so-eco-friendly substitute oil, like mineral or whale) an hour was supposed to calm the waters around a decent-sized boat.

Despite its many invaluable uses, this highly effective sailing trick somehow never found its way into maritime manuals, and crews had to rely on their captains passing down their tried-and-true sea oiling formulas like an Italian grandmother’s secret sauce. The practice eventually died out in the 20th century — partially for environmental reasons, but mostly because we got good at keeping boats from capsizing and no longer needed to lube up the water for a light squall.

3 Pee On Wheat For An Ancient Pregnancy Test

An Egyptian scroll dating from 1350 BCE explained an ingenious agrarian life hack to help test for pregnancy. All women had to do was take a barley seed and an emmer wheat seed, plant them in separate bags of soil, and then pee on them every day for a couple of weeks. If the plants grew, so would your belly.

Surprisingly, this trick worked almost as well as our fancy modern pregnancy tests, with contemporary scientific replication of the practice having determined a success rate between 70% and 85%. The explanation has to do with pregnancy hormones which (quite logically) facilitate organic growth. Meanwhile, regular salty pee will just wither crops. Plus, this way you can use that wheat to make special pregnancy bread to serve to your horrified friends. It’s a win-win.

2 Builders Made Cement Out Of Egg Whites And Rice

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It turns out that old-fashioned mortar isn’t that water-resistant over time, so builders needed to add something to fortify walls so that their enemies couldn’t win sieges with sprinklers and patience. So most ancient mortar was effectively bound with organic additives, i.e. proteins and starches. Of course, every region had its own recipe. Europeans liked to mix together animal blood, sugars, and egg white.

But the Chinese had the best secret ingredient of all, choosing to stick their bricks together with a mixture of lime, sand, and sticky rice. Not only is the resulting mortar water-resistant, but it actually gets stronger over time, as the chemical binding reactions in the rice continue for years. This was scientifically proven in 1978, when some dummy drove a bulldozer into an ancient tomb fortified with rice and didn’t even cause a dent. Unfortunately, rice also had another important use in China: feeding people. So when the Ming built their part of Great Wall in the 15th century, they used so much sticky rice that it caused a famine across rural southern China, whose soldiers probably only defended the wall against invaders so they could eat it afterward.

1 Pre-Internet Life Hacks Were Printed On Cigarette Packs

In the 1880s, cigarette companies started putting rigid cards into their packs to keep their feeble cigarettes from getting smooshed. They would eventually adorn these cards with drawings of pretty ladies or celebrities to draw customers’ attention. But in the 1910s, the cigarette company Gallaher made the brilliant marketing move of combining smoking with our hopeless addiction to life hacks. They started printing a series of wildly popular “How To” cartoons on their cards, featuring written instructions for various tips and tricks on the backs. Like how to carve a match so you can light a cigarette in even the windiest of storms:

Gallaher’s Cigarettes, via New York Public LibrarySkipping class to smoke behind the bleachers has never been more educational.

Or how to build a makeshift fire extinguisher out of everyday household items like … water:

Gallaher’s Cigarettes, via New York Public LibraryFall asleep with a lit cigarette to your heart’s content with this handy hack!

While the hacks initially revolved around smoking (seeing as how smokers consisted of about 100% of the population), general tips and tricks quickly started to appear as well. Like how to keep eggs fresh without an icebox:

Gallaher’s Cigarettes, via New York Public LibraryThen, when you were ready, you could cook them and enjoy your breakfast of poached eggs and fried cigarettes.

Then Gallaher started publishing Boy Scout techniques. Maybe it’s a little iffy that cigarettes were portraying actual Boy Scouts on their packs, but then again, would you rather listen to a pack of cigarettes without the BSA Seal of Approval? Here’s one on how to deal with some idiot straight grabbing a live wire:

Gallaher’s Cigarettes, via New York Public Library”Sir, you’re shivering! Here, let me put this non-insulated jacked on you with my bare hands.”Continue Reading Below

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Or how to fend off feral dogs (which was apparently a major concern in the early 20th century):

Gallaher’s Cigarettes, via New York Public LibraryThe 1910s sound stressful. No wonder everyone was smoking.

Sturdier packs made the practice obsolete by the 1940s, and cigarette cards, like lifetime smokers, died out in under 60 years.

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