Thanks to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, several beauty brands have come under fire recently for their disturbing “skin lightening” products. The lotions and creams are particularly pervasive in Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries, where colonialism has made way for colorism. In India, Unilever, which makes Dove soap, has a hugely successful skin lightening brand called Fair & Lovely, which brings in more than $560 million in annual sales.
Many of these companies have vowed to remove dangerous messaging or discontinue their products altogether. It seems like a no-brainer and unconscionable that they were ever sold in the first place. However, companies pedaling disturbing products to the public is far from new.
In fact, GOBankingRates looked at 31 of the most bizarre items to hit store shelves throughout history. They range from the creepy to the offensive to the downright comical. Keep reading to discover the strange products that are hard to believe ever existed — some of which you can still buy today.
Last updated: July 23, 2020
Some might argue that beauty is subjective and it is your unique features — a mole here, an asymmetrical smile there — that make you special. Others, like makeup extraordinaire Max Factor, argue that you need an archaic torture device strapped on your head to stamp out any and all signs of unattractiveness.
Ads for the 1930s Beauty Micrometer state that the cage mask “analyzes facial flaws for makeup.”
“If, for instance, the subject’s nose is slightly crooked — so slightly, in fact, that it escapes ordinary observation — the flaw is promptly detected by the instrument and corrective makeup is applied by an experienced operator.”
Today, beauty is a $532 billion industry and still advertises plenty of strange devices — jade rollers, microdermabrasion systems, epilators. Fortunately, most of them look slightly less creepy than the micrometer.
Here’s another product in the “terrifying masks meant to get rid of ugliness” category: Rejuvenique. Whether you planned to stay home and have a spa night or go out on the town to celebrate The Purge, this electric facial-toning mask was the perfect choice in the late ’90s, early ’00s. It claimed to reduce wrinkles by exercising, tightening and toning the face muscles. The makers recommended using the product 15 minutes a day, three to four times a week for the best results
Though the original isn’t in production anymore, you can get a similar model right now on Amazon for $255. It has plenty of negative reviews but also seems to have a band of loyal followers who have left five-star ratings. “I used this product for years, and absolutely love it. I will never understand why they stopped manufacturing it,” wrote customer Pan Mittle. “Yes, it looks like something out of a horror film, but it is convenient and effective and altogether an essential in one’s beauty regime.”
Hair Growth Hat
Now, women weren’t the only ones with wild headwear back in the day. As long as men have been going bald, scientists have been trying to figure out a way to stop it, and Allied Merke Institutions Inc. offered a solution — a hat that would grow hair. As long as you didn’t mind looking like the Pope for 10 minutes a day, the company’s founder Alois Merke guaranteed you’d see hair growth in 30 days thanks to the vaguely defined, cone-shaped technology.
Turns out Merke might have been on to something. In September 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that materials science and engineering professor Xudong Wang had created a hair regenerating hat of his own. “Small devices called nanogenerators passively gather energy from day-to-day movements and then transmit low-frequency pulses of electricity to the skin. That gentle electric stimulation causes dormant follicles to ‘wake up,’” wrote Sam Million-Weaver. Fortunately, the much more subtle device can be covered with a baseball cap.
These hats are now available from multiple companies like Capillus and Bosley, promising a full, beautiful head of hair.
Bald Head Polisher
Of course, if you’ve come to peace with your lack of hair, why not really lean into things and get a polisher for your head? On Jan. 12, 1950, an engineer at the Los Angeles Brush Manufacturing Corp. demonstrated the brilliant “Hairline Brush.” The beauty tool came with a contoured handle meant to fit neatly around your noggin. It also had a felt pad for massaging the skin and bristles for brushing what tiny hairs remained.
Wooden Bathing Suits
Grays Harbor County in Washington state is famous for two things: it’s lumber industry and its “Spruce Girls.” Back in 1929, some enterprising individual saw an opportunity to turn cheap, pliable veneer sheets made of spruce wood into bathing suits for women. The marketing campaign, which rolled out to the public during the county’s “Wood Week,” featured women in one-piece spruce swimwear. According to The Vintage News, the suits “were described as simple, cheap, and easy to make, yet fashionable and modern.”
How fashionable they were is up for debate, though the fact that they never caught on is probably answer enough. However, one thing is clear from old photos of the Spruce Girls laughing and frolicking on the beach: you could have a good time in one.
If you’ve ever had too good of a time — maybe after a raucous night out on the town with the Spruce Girls — and needed to get rid of a headache the next morning, you could’ve tried “electrified water.” The product was advertised as the best treatment “for the morning after.” Fortunately, it wasn’t as dangerous as it sounds — the electric currents stopped surging through the water before you dipped your hands in — but this still seems like an accident waiting to happen.
Through the early 1900s, people thought electrified water was good for drinking, watering plants and cleaning clothing without soap. In fact, in 1913, the Albuquerque Morning Journal ran an ad for The Imperial Laundry which stated they had solved the “problem of absolutely sterilizing clothes” without the use of chloride or lime — instead, they used electrified water.
Mueller Exerciser Belts
In more health and beauty, you’ve heard of cutting corners but have you heard of jiggling the corners until they’re smoothed down? That was the concept behind the Mueller Exerciser, or vibrating exercise belt. Starting sometime around the 1930s, the device was pitched to the exercise-averse as a simple way to lose weight. Just stand in place and let the belt jostle your fat away!
Though the machines are no longer in vogue, they seem to have inspired a new generation of too-good-to-be-true fitness products. In fact, a vibrating “slimming belt” is available on Amazon for $90 right now that claims to eliminate the need for medicine and exercise. “Vibration function can improve your blood circulation and enhance your metabolism, and provide healthier bowel movement,” the listing states. “It can also help restore your body shape after childbirth.”
Wonder Sauna Hot Pants
In the 1970s, another fantastic product for the lazy emerged: Wonder Sauna Hot Pants. They looked like someone had hired a clown to make a balloon animal, but the balloon animal was shorts. An ad from Retronaut states the product will “slenderize exactly where you want” — assuming everywhere you want is your “waist, tummy, hips and thighs.”
Similar products — though not quite as silly looking — appeared, proving the idea wasn’t seen as that crazy. In fact, you can still get sauna pants today in some form or another. A cheesy ad for the updated garment, which looks like neon shorts with a dial attached to the waist, was posted to YouTube in 2012.
If you were looking for a step up from exercise belts and sauna hot pants but still weren’t ready to commit to a gym membership, you could always try the Hawaii Chair. The invention was basically a computer chair, except it came with a motorized, barstool-like seat that whirled your pelvis around in an attempt to give you abs.
The Hawaii Chair was advertised as perfect for both the home and office. Infomercials showed “office workers” typing at their computers, answering phones and having meetings, all while pretending that their legs weren’t trying to escape from their bodies.
The tagline? “If you can sit, you can get fit.”
If you’re a writer trying to get work done and your co-worker’s Hawaii Chair won’t stop whirring, it can be hard to focus. Hugo Gernsback, who was quite the science fiction pioneer, invented The Isolator to solve the problem of outside distractions. The head covering was the equivalent of wearing noise-canceling headphones and horse blinders — and looked even more bizarre.
“The helmet’s tiny eyepieces were apparently painted black allowing only a small visual clearance through a thinly scraped segment,” according to Interesting Engineering. “To address the breathing requirement, Gernsback introduced an oxygen tank extension to the helmet.”
In 2017, company Hochu Raya invented a slightly less scary version of The Isolator known as the Helmfon — a sensory deprivation device that looks like an oversized football helmet.
Another product designed for one, the Motorwheel, or monowheel, was invented by Swiss engineer M. Gerder in 1931. He, along with a lot of other bicycle enthusiasts in the ’30s, wanted to improve upon the two-wheeled structure that had come about in the 1800s. Unlike some clunkier versions that involved giant circular cages, the Motorwheel was a motorcycle with one thin rubber tire that wrapped around the driver so they sat on the inside of the ring — a bit like a hamster on its wheel.
Though it never reached bicycle-levels of popularity, monowheels are still produced today. In fact, there is an entire British Monowheel Association that races their one-ring beauties around like something out of Tron.
You’ve now seen a monocycle, and you’ve probably seen a tandem bicycle — a bike fit for two — but how about one fit for four? The family bicycle was invented in 1939 by Charles Steinlauf to cart his daughter, wife and son around town. It required the person on the back to pedal, the person up top to steer via a wheel, and the other two positions to hold on tight.
Actually, a sewing machine was placed in the middle of the bicycle where Mrs. Steinlauf would keep sewing during demonstrations. It’s unclear if that was a temporary setup to illustrate the bicycle’s stability or if it was just a kooky idea from a misguided husband.
“Honey, you know how you’re always saying you’d like to go for more family bike rides, but you’re always so busy darning socks? Well come take a look outside!”
When Mrs. Steinlauf was doing her darning, she probably wasn’t working with edible socks. That’s where London Sock Company comes into play. They create normal socks, sure, but also ones that are 100% edible. “The idea being that these socks can be worn with your favourite suit, whilst smelling like your favourite fruit, then, when done with, you take them off and enjoy the remarkably fruity flavour as the fruits fibres melt in your mouth,” the company site explains.
Afraid you won’t like the taste of your own foot? Never fear. The bizarre product comes in the following colors/flavors: yellow banana, blue blueberry, orange orange and red cherry. The product promises “four stylish designs and hours of stylish snacking!”
Indeed, one customer’s review reads, “I had a hole in mine and with any other socks and that’s the end, but not these, oh no! I had them in the fridge for a day and then ate them!”
If you’re squeamish, it’s time to move on. This next food item is even grosser.
During the 16th century, eldery people in Arabia and China who wanted their bodies put to good use after they died would begin a process known as “mellification.” The word’s root is “mel” or “honey” in Latin. As such, it started with the person eating nothing but honey and bathing in it periodically.
“Soon the honey would begin to build up inside the body and, obviously, because an all-honey diet is not sustainable, the person would die,” notes All That’s Interesting. “Then, after death, their body would be placed in a stone coffin filled with honey.”
After a century, the coffin would be opened to reveal a sugary, amber-colored mess.The substance was parceled out and sold at markets as cures for various ailments. Unfortunately, it was to be administered orally.
Fortunately, this condiment is not made from dogs but made for them. When your dog is a finicky eater or his kibble just needs a little razzle dazzle, pour on one of Petchup’s dog condiments. The company offers Petchup, Muttstard, Mutt-N-Aise and Bark B-Q sauce for your furry friend. Despite their names, each condiment is actually meat-flavored.
It’s hard to tell if this product is a joke or genius but for just $24.40, you can snag a bottle and find out.
EZ Squirt Ketchup
On to a human-centric condiment: ketchup. In 2001, Heinz decided regular ketchup just wasn’t fun enough and launched a line of kid-friendly ketchups known as EZ Squirt. They started with a revamped bottle design and two colors: a traditional red and Blastin’ Green, which was a promotional product for the movie Shrek. The popularity of the zany green ketchup gave way to an array of unnatural color additions including Funky Purple, Stellar Blue, Awesome Orange, Passion Pink and Totally Teal.
The product ultimately tanked as parents became more health-conscious and concerned over artificial coloring. And it turns out moms probably had it right on this one. The wild colors “were achieved by stripping the red color from traditional Heinz ketchup and adding food coloring. And because the flavor had to be tweaked to taste just like traditional ketchup, it could no longer be called ‘tomato ketchup’ like the original red,” reported Fast Company.
Easy Butter Grater
Around 2013, Japanese company Metex introduced a product no one realized they needed until that moment: a butter grater. The Easy Butter looks a bit like a cheese grater you’d see at a restaurant, but churns out — pun very much intended — ribbons of butter resembling silly string. The device solved the age-old problem of people destroying their toast with too-cold, too-hard slabs of butter.
Metex still sells the product for about $25. It claims you can use the same device for cheese, chocolate and pasta. It also comes in two sizes: the classic and the mini.
While the advent of the Easy Butter allowed people to take a cube and transform it into a new shape, the Egg Cuber looked to do the opposite.
In 1976, inventor Masashi Nakagawa applied for a U.S. patent on his device “Apparatus for deforming boiled egg.” It was a tool to change a “peeled, warm or hot hard-boiled egg into a desired shape, for example a cubic shape.”
That same year, Stan Pargman established Square Egg Co. to make essentially the same device, the far more charmingly named Egg Cuber.
It remains unclear who had the idea first and why. Was it to keep eggs from rolling off plates as website Food Diggity suggests, or just because a cube seemed aesthetically pleasing? The answer is likely the latter, as you can now buy molds on Amazon that turn your hard boiled eggs into everything from dinosaurs to bunnies.
Rubik’s Cube Gel
Another, slightly less edible cube took the world by storm in the ’70s: the Rubik’s cube. The colorful puzzle isn’t itself that out there — but its players are. Rubik’s enthusiasts pride themselves on their ability to solve the square’s secrets in lightning-fast times. In fact, the current Guinness World Records holder for fastest Rubik’s cube solve is Feliks Zemdegs with 4.22 seconds.
Which leads to the actual odd invention: Rubik’s cube gel. In order to keep those tiles spinning at peak performance, you apparently need to grease the joints. Speed Cube Shop sells little bottles of goo with names like Nebula, Martian and Vortex — all designed to bring your cube game up a notch. Who knew?
Creepy Crawlers Thingmaker
You might remember Creepy Crawlers being popular in the ’90s. The toy was marketed as the boy’s answer to the Easy Bake Oven and actually got so popular that a cartoon show of the same name was created around it. However, the gadget was introduced long before then.
In the ’60s, Mattel released the Creepy Crawlers Thingmaker that was less of a toy and more of a lawsuit waiting to happen. Not only did the oven reach 350 degrees, but it came with metal plates and no locking mechanism to keep kids from snatching them out of the oven prematurely. Even scarier was the “Plastigoop,” with which the Creepy Crawlers were made. According to Throwbacks, “The problem was that while the chemicals were being cooked in the super hot oven, it would give off noxious fumes that could make kids sick.”
The formula of the goop and the design of the toy itself had to be completely rethought for subsequent generations. “From start to finish you were really just playing with a danger-box that was built to test your ability to survive,” reported Throwbacks.
Dream Phone Game
This toy was a strange one too, just with less bugs and more boys. The Dream Phone game by Milton Bradley was popular in the ’90s, particularly with young girls, as it came with a neat hot pink phone and “Saved by the Bell” aesthetic. The object of the game was to dial the number on boys’ information cards to get clues and find out who your secret admirer was.
While this might not seem like a bad product, it was pretty misogynistic to have girls work against each other to ultimately win one boy’s affection. “Why do all players have the same Secret Admirer?” asked Vanessa Golembewski in a 2016 Refinery29 article after playing the game as an adult. “Doesn’t that kind of pit women against each other for the affection of the same man? Meanwhile, this guy has girls chasing him down left and right.”
Perhaps the weirdest thing about the game, however, was that the photos of the guys — real models’ headshots, by the way — were all over the place, age-wise. Some of the boys looked 13 and others looked 20. By today’s standards, it is probably a little too creepy to give out to your daughter.
Also, now that kids own tablets and smartphones, the novelty of the super-cool phone technology would be totally lost on them.
White Goat Paper Recycler
In 2010, DigInfo TV, a Toyko-based online news site covering new technologies slightly more exciting than the Dream Phone, did a piece on a cutting-edge product from company Oriental. The White Goat machine, presented at the Eco Products 2009 convention, converts shredded office paper into toilet paper.
Kimihiro Nozawa, manager of the technology development department at the time, said, “The equipment in here dissolves shredded paper in water to make toilet paper. All the customer needs to do is put the shredded paper in, take the toilet paper out and supply the machine with water.”
The White Goat might sound a little out there, but it is a novel solution for paper waste, which is especially rampant in office environments.
Toilet Paper Hat
Here’s another unique Japanese invention that centers on toilet paper: the toilet paper hat. The fashion-forward device uses a chin strap to keep a roll of TP fixed atop your head — obviously much more sensible than, say, carrying around a package of tissues in your pocket. According to My Simple Remedies, the hat could come in handy for anything from seasonal allergies to a flu bug.
Though its makers might argue it is a pragmatic solution to man’s mobile nose-wiping needs, others aren’t so sure. The device graced the cover of Kenji Kawakami’s 2015 book “The Big Bento Box of Unuseless Japanese Inventions.” The book is filled with products described as “chindogu” or “bizarre and logic-defying gadgets and gizmos, which must work but are actually entirely impractical.”
On the unsettling scale, the Mortsafe falls somewhere between a mellified man and the toilet paper hat.
In 19th century Scotland, medical schools had a shortage of cadavers to practice with. This led to shady business dealings between doctors desperate for bodies and criminals willing to provide them for a fee.
As body snatching became increasingly common, loved ones would purchase Mortsafes — an added layer of protection — for their deceased relatives’ graves. According to The Vintage News, Mortsafes ranged “from iron cages to heavy stone table tombstones or concrete boxes.”
They can still be seen in churchyards around the country. “One model in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard (in Edinburgh, Scotland,) holds three spaces for coffins, has a complex padlock system with interlocking bars and can only be opened when two locks with different keys (often given to two separate church members) are unlocked.”
A new type of cage — with decidedly cuter contents — was invented in the 20th century: the baby cage. It was inspired by Dr. Luther Emmett Holt’s book “The Care and Feeding of Children,” in which he called for the “airing” of babies to improve their vitality. It was designed to affix to apartment windows like a modern-day air-conditioning unit and the baby would be placed inside, sometimes with blankets or toys to keep it occupied. The wire box gave city-dwelling mothers the ability to provide their babies with fresh air without the need of a yard.
The baby cage became popular with families in London during the 1930s and even inspired Eleanor Roosevelt to purchase one for her newborn stateside. Fortunately, despite its widespread use, the devices never resulted in any known injuries or deaths. They were phased out in the late 20th century when people presumably realized that dangling children from 20 stories up on makeshift balconies might not be the best idea.
The Two-Parent Baby Carrier
In other baby-dangling news: an actual baby dangler. This product was more of a one-off, but still pretty wacky.
Jack Milford, a player for the British hockey team the Wembley Monarchs, invented this carrying device circa 1937. He wanted to skate around the rink with his wife and infant, and apparently didn’t think to bring the family’s baby carriage. The baby carrier looked a bit like a swing where the child puts both its legs through the holes, only the child was far too small for it. It was definitely a clever solution to some on-ice family bonding, but it looked like the baby could topple out at any moment. It’s probably for the best that the invention never took off.
Baby Alice Thumb Guard
In the 1920s, there was no better way to get your baby to stop sucking their thumb than to strap a Baby Alice Thumb Guard to their little paw. The premise was to wrap metal around the baby’s thumb so they wouldn’t be able to get to the actual finger. One of these medieval-looking torture devices now resides in the University of Buffalo’s collection of unusual artifacts.
Nowadays, you can find modern versions of the thumb guard on Amazon. A company called Bopoobo, for example, sells considerably softer looking “teething mittens,” complete with a silicone cap that fits over the thumb.
Speaking of torture devices, dental keys, also known as tooth keys, were the barber-surgeon’s tool of choice for tooth extraction from the early 1700s to the start of the 20th century.
According to the Science Museum Group Collection, “The claw (of the instrument) was placed over the top of the tooth and the bolster, the long metal rod to which the claw is attached, was placed against the root of the tooth. The key was then turned as if the user were opening a lock and the tooth would hopefully be removed – although dental keys were notorious for causing injury.”
To that last point, a 2005 paper from John M. Hyson Jr. of the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery claimed that the tool “caused more accidents and injuries than all other extraction instruments combined” during the 1900s. This was also pre-anesthesia, so patients likely had to be strapped down to get through the process.
In 1885, the best way to cure a toothache if you didn’t have a dental key was with toothache drops from Lloyd Manufacturing Co. The magic ingredient? A certain illicit white substance you might find at a wild party. An advertisement for the miracle medicine says it cost 15 cents, which would be just under $4 today.
Of course, this isn’t all that shocking when you consider the other substances that were used to quiet teething babies around the same time. Teething powders contained several toxic substances, such as mercurous chloride and potassium chlorate — with just a pinch of licorice for flavor. Syrups through the early 1900s also contained morphine.
Healthline reported in 2014 that, “One large American manufacturer of homeopathic products even sells teething tablets and gels that contain belladonna. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a safety recall for the tablets, they are back on the market.”
Belladonna Eye Drops
Speaking of belladonna, Atropa belladonna as it is formally known, is a paradoxical plant. It is extremely poisonous and yet has had valuable uses in medicine dating back to ancient times. In fact, it is still used today in some form or another to treat everything from stomach ulcers to motion sickness to gout.
Its dual nature is reflected in its many names, too. It’s often called deadly nightshade or the devil’s berry because of its toxicity, and yet “belladonna” means “beautiful women” in Italian. That particular moniker comes from the renaissance period, when women would mix the plant with water and put droplets into their eyes. The mixture would dilate the pupils, which many considered to be beautiful.
According to the National Capital Poison Center, while it might have made women easy on the eyes, the practice was anything but. Not only would it make it more difficult to see, but “absorbing enough belladonna could cause hallucinations and seizures, too.”
Skin Lightening Products
As if belladonna in the eyes wasn’t enough, dating as far back as 1,600 B.C., women used lead paint mixed with vinegar — a mixture known as ceruse — to paint their faces white. The poisonous substance saw rises and falls in popularity over the centuries, including an uptick during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign in the late 1500s.
The highly toxic practice of using ceruse persisted through the 18th century. Then, in the 19th century, women looked to arsenic to destroy the red blood cells in their faces so they could achieve fairer skin. Mercury was also used to brighten the face, and radioactive substances thorium and radium were used to get a glow.
This all seems like a ridiculous thing of the past — another baby cage or Isolator — until you consider the fact that skin lightening products are still used the world over today. Aveeno, Lancom, Loreal, Clinique and more all push products with the same messaging — whiter, brighter skin is beautiful; darker skin is not.
Thankfully, beauty brands are starting to address these products. However, they’ve been reluctant to lose money, so change has been slow. It’s past time to get these substances — just like ceruse, arsenic and other dangerous products of yore — off of store shelves.
More From GOBankingRates
- 50 Easy Things You Should Do To Save Money
- The Downsides of Retirement That Nobody Talks About
- 25 Ways To Save 20% More of Your Paycheck Without Even Trying
- 40 Money Habits That Can Leave You Broke
Photo disclaimer: Photos are for illustrative purposes only. As a result, some of the images may not reflect the items listed in this article.