Some of the items found in our homes have unusual origins, and we’re not just talking about those hot dogs buried in the freezer. Whether acquired in a department store, grocery, or the local pharmacy, these common goods now enjoy widespread acceptance, but at one point were used for different purposes — or even viewed with suspicion. Read on to learn more about six household objects with a colorful past.
According to Amy Azzarito's The Elements of a Home: Curious Histories Behind Everyday Household Objects, From Pillows to Forks, the first dining forks surfaced in the Byzantine Empire during the first millennium CE. However, their eastern migration via the marriage of Maria Argyropoulina to the son of the Doge of Venice in 1004 was met with horror by the Venetians, who considered these pronged utensils to be tools of the devil; when Argyropoulina died a few years after the marriage from the plague, it was viewed as God's revenge for her spiteful vanity. It wasn't until candied fruits became popular in the 15th century that the satanic connotations around the implement disappeared, and Italians again wielded forks to devour the messy treats.
Salt has long been treasured as a resource both for flavoring meals and keeping meat and fish fresh, rendering it a particularly vital commodity in the dark days before refrigerators. Roman soldiers were reportedly paid in rations of salt known as salarium — the origin of the word “salary” — while Saharan trade routes throughout the Middle Ages frequently featured the exchange of large bricks of the mineral. Recent research indicates that the Maya of South and Central America also used salt as money some 2,500 years ago, suggesting that humankind’s salty cravings are possibly as old and powerful as the desire to accumulate wealth.
Beds occupied an important place in medieval dwellings: Not only were they comfortable spots for people to read, pray, socialize, mate, and give birth, but they were often the most expensive pieces of furniture in a home. As a result, beds were often passed along by the same legal means used to transfer the deceased’s ownership of property or family jewels. Women were nearly twice as likely to bequeath beds than men, according to one examination of a set of wills from 1392 to 1542, though that’s probably because the rarer female testator was usually a widow and therefore more inclined to give away important household items.
Ever want to give those uninvited evil spirits a good kick in the pants? Apparently, the best way to do so in 19th-century England was to stash a well-worn shoe in a hidden compartment near a home's opening, be it a door, window, or fireplace. As there are no written records of this custom, the witches-be-gone theory really represents the best guess of many historians; others have speculated that it spread as a good-luck token among builders. Regardless of how and why the practice came about, enough hidden footwear has been discovered in old homes of Western Europe — as well as in the northeastern United States and Canada — for England's Northampton Museum to oversee a Concealed Shoe Index.
Yes, you read that correctly; until the late 18th century, the best way to eliminate graphite markings was with moistened, rolled-up pieces of bread. However, a big breakthrough came in 1770, when English theologian Joseph Priestley realized that rubber was "a substance excellently adapted to the purpose of wiping from paper the mark of black lead pencil." That same year, English engineer Edward Nairne began selling rubber erasers, which he claimed to have invented after mistakenly grabbing a piece of rubber instead of the intended breadcrumb. Nairne is largely credited for popularizing erasers, but there's no need to feel bad for Priestly, who eventually received his due for discovering oxygen.
During the Great War, the Kimberly-Clark company of Wisconsin shipped huge supplies of their wood pulp-based "cellucotton" to be used as bandages and gas mask air filters. So what became of this thin, absorbent crepe paper once battlefield demand ceased with the armistice of 1918? The first step was to turn it into a women's sanitary pad, which hit stores in 1920 under the brand name of Kotex. Four years later, Kimberly-Clark introduced another cellucotton product named Kleenex; originally marketed as a makeup and cold cream remover, it soon enjoyed a surge in popularity as a disposable alternative to the soggy handkerchief.