8 Historical Luxuries Turned Into Everyday Items
Learn about the transformation of items that were historically rare into today's commonplace commodities.
It’s no secret—the world’s crazy. And, frankly, there’s a lot to complain about. All the same, it’s easy to lose track of how far we’ve actually come. Here’s a list of 8 things that you enjoy—yes, you! —that used to be reserved for royalty.
Let’s start with the fundamentals, shall we? Most of us can hardly imagine leaving the house in the morning without a fresh cup of coffee; if you squint hard enough you can actually make out a mini Starbucks logo at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (although some argue vehemently that it’s a Dunkin logo instead).
But what has become a household staple and rite of modern worker’s passage used to be nearly impossible to come by. The official origin story of coffee is that it was discovered 1200 years ago by an Ethiopian goat herder (no, we’re not joking). Legend has it, the goat herder Kaldi noticed that every time his goats nibbled on the bright red berries of a certain bush, they got a little… rowdy! Eventually Kaldi got curious, took a few berries for himself, and the rest is history.
Not only has coffee technically been a luxury for much of human history, but it literally wasn’t even “a thing” until 800 A.D.!
Ah, aluminum… (if you’re British, reading that surely sounded a whole lot cooler) Aluminum is the stuff of legends. It’s sleek; it’s shiny; it’s coveted; it’s… wait a second… sorry I thought we were talking about silver. Aluminum is… aluminum is uh… pretty darn boring, to be totally honest.
But it hasn’t always been boring.
Although today aluminum is the stuff of crumpled up soda cans and other garbage goodies, it used to be quite a gem. Aluminum ore (the rock it is found in) wasn’t even discovered until 1821. And by the time scientists found out how to actually take the shiny silver metal out of the plain-looking ore, aluminum was considered an “elite” material, intended mainly for ornaments and luxury items.
In the words of the French chemist Sainte-Claire Deville, “There is nothing harder than to make people use a new metal. Luxury items and ornaments cannot be the only sphere of its application. I hope the time will come when aluminium will serve to satisfy the daily needs.” If by “daily needs” Sainte-Claire meant soda cans and cooking tins, then he certainly got his wish!
Today, purple is just another HEX code, another color in a flashy clothing advertisement, another color in your local high school’s logo. But a few thousand years ago, purple was a showstopper.
1500 years before Christ purple was a luxury to end all luxuries. All that really needs to be said about the purple of the old days is the peculiar process it took to actually make it…
On the shores of ancient Lebanon, thousands of the tiny snails had to be found, their shells cracked, and the body removed. These snail bodies were left to soak for a while. A day or so later, a tiny gland of each snail was removed and the juice of this gland was put in a large jar. Workers then placed this jar in the sunlight and set a timer (ha!). Throughout the day, the sunlight turned the snail-gut-juice white, then yellow-green, then green… then violet… then red… then… then this violet finally turned even darker. But they weren’t done yet…! The workers had to ensure that this process was stopped at precisely the right time. Otherwise—no purple.
Ok, we admit… this one might be a little obvious. But it’s worth reminding everybody nonetheless.
Remember how jealous you were in middle school when your rich friend got to jet over to Paris for a week during Spring break and you only went on a road trip to Colorado?
Well… before a few hundred years ago or so, neither of you youngins would’ve been heading anywhere.
Go far enough back—say, to medieval France, before Paris was even Paris—and you wouldn’t have even been in “school” or had any conception of a “Spring break.” And no matter how wealthy your peers, the farthest they’d be “jetting off to” would be the village next door to pet the donkey Bartholomew.
Trash is kinda like death and taxes—it’s guaranteed. But although, throughout the years, humans have fashioned some pretty crafty ways of dealing with the inevitable, it wasn’t always as simple as chucking an apple in the wastebasket and taking out the trash bin on tuesday nights.
Several thousand years ago, taking out the trash was a bit trickier than just reminding your spouse. In 3000 BC Crete, residents took it upon themselves to gather all the young men from the village, head to a suitable site just around the village’s corner and dig a massive ditch for dumping.
And it wasn’t until many thousands of years later in 500 BC Greece that people began to think, “Huh… maybe we shouldn’t be dumping things in the streets…?” It was with these crafty Greeks that the groundwork for the modern garbage system was laid. Greek city ordinances required that all trash be transported and dumped one mile from the city to keep things (at least somewhat!) clean and pristine.
Today anybody can just waltz into Walgreens and get some skin care products, no hassle required. There’s moisturizer; there’s sunscreen; there’s eye cream; there’s toner; there’s a thousand more!
But, although they technically had skin care products in ancient times, they were less “products” and more “assorted stuff you found around your village and mixed into a slimy paste”…
Ladies in the 12th century gathered up some cucumbers, rosemary and vinegar to tend to their skin. They would also often throw in some assorted seeds, leaves and flowers for good measure.
During the Renaissance age, people moved on to bigger and better skin care routines. Renaissance ladies began to use the healthy trio of mercury, lead and chalk to soothe their skin!
The modern human takes it for granted that he or she can pack on the muscle with just two key ingredients—some weights and some food. But… what gives if there literally aren’t any weights?
No doubt, the ancients did have means of sculpting their physiques. It was just a heck of a lot harder!
As an ancient Greek, your options for getting buff were seriously limited. You had stones. You had logs. You had animals. And you had… each other (and I don’t mean just for moral support; I mean you literally lifted your pals, giving a whole new spin to the term “lifting partner”).
It wasn’t until the 1800s that things changed even a little bit. Come the 19th century, you at least had a few lumps of shaped iron with handles on them to toss around. But yeah… Planet Fitness and its clean, cushy and air-conditioned ambience wouldn’t be around for another hundred plus years.
Speaking of air conditioning… that’s another thing we should be thanking our lucky stars for.
Anybody who lives in the south knows the misery of a broken AC in the summer. But can any of us seriously imagine living like that 24/7? As the saying goes, you can always add more layers, but you can only take so many off!
The air conditioning unit wasn’t even invented until 1922 (and that was an incredibly wimpy one by today’s standards!). And come 1960, it was still only 1 out of every 5 American homes that had an AC unit. Come the 70’s, the window unit would slowly decrease in popularity, and the AC system that we’ve all come to love made its way into more and more homes.