The late 19th to early 20th century was a time of rapid industrialization and technological innovation, giving rise to a plethora of inventive ideas. Among these, some creations showcased brilliant solutions to practical problems, while others ventured into the realm of the eccentric and peculiar (remember our ode to snake oil post?). Join me as I take a journey through time to explore fascinating inventions that emerged during this era, ranging from ingenious to downright quirky.
Pneumatic Tube Mail System (1870) - Revolutionizing Mail Transportation In a world without email or instant messaging, the Pneumatic Tube Mail System was a marvel that changed the way mail was transported in cities. Utilizing compressed air, this underground system swiftly transported mail through tubes, bypassing traffic and reaching its destination with remarkable speed. If you’ve been to a bank’s drive-thru then you have joined in the history of the brilliant pneumatic tube. Check out City Xcape’s Secret Marvel: NYC’s Pneumatic Mail Tubes.
The Pigeon Camera (1907) - Avian Photographers Take Flight Long before drones, the Pigeon Camera took to the skies for aerial photography experiments. This fascinating invention equipped pigeons with small cameras, capturing unique bird's-eye views of the world below. You can thank Julius Neubronner for this device. He used pigeons to deliver urgent medications, making them the first Amazon drones. One of the pigeons got lost, and when it returned a month later mysteriously fat and indisposed to flying around again Neubronner thought he might equip his pigeons with cameras to track their paths – and perhaps see where the errant bird was getting coddled and fed.
In World War I, militaries took up the pigeon camera to take aerial photos of battlefields. But soon, carrier pigeons strapped with messages and sent from mobile dovecotes became the preferred method. I highly suggest reading Alan Hlad’s amazing novel, TheLong Flight Home, for more info on those courageous birds.
The Mustache Cup (1875) - A Victorian Solution to Mustache Mishaps During the Victorian era, mustaches were all the rage among gentlemen, but they posed a challenge during teatime. Enter the Mustache Cup – a cup designed with a special ledge to protect the wearer's mustache from
getting wet while sipping hot beverages. There was also a mustache spoon with a similar design, meant to keep turtle soup and such from soiling one's upper lip coif.
Mustaches were so en vogue, a gentleman could purchase a false mustache or goatee if he felt it would keep him in the "in" crowd. And every apothecary and phramacist carried some form of snake oil - sorry, excelsior lotion and miracle hair growth made by a world famous physician/spiritualist - should one's 'stache fail to astound.
Quack Medicine "Electrotherapy" Devices (Late 1800s) - Dubious Health Gadgets The late 19th century witnessed a surge inquestionable medical devices promising miraculous cures through "Electrotherapy." These electrical gadgets claimed to cure various ailments, but their effectiveness was often dubious and backed more by pseudoscience than genuine medical knowledge. Just think – you could add live metal electrodes into your bath tub and benefit from its healing properties. Rheumatism – gone. Headaches and female ailments – a thing of the past. Oncoming nervous breakdown? This will take care of it. (If it doesn’t, you might find yourself at a Victorian mental hospital, with state of the art treatments – such as electric baths! You go, Victorian Quack Medicine Men!
The Automatic Hat Tipper (1920) - A mechanical hat-tipping device, activated by a lever or button. This ingenious mechanical device wasdesigned to offer a touch of politeness without the need for human intervention. I mean, really, the men needed their hands free to twirl their mighty mustaches and walking sticks, and generally boast about. When activated by the lever or button, the contraption would gracefully tip a gentleman's hat, giving the impression of a respectful greeting. The inventor behind this odd creation was James Boyle of Washington DC. I suggest that this be given in a beautiful gift box with the mustache accoutrements listed above. A marvelous device that could come in handy now, as men's hands are currently tied up with scrolling on their phones.
The Victorian and Edwardian era were awash in inventions and the latest in technologies, some still with us (electricity, the telephone, and yes, the mustache cup) while others have faded away or been replaced with something better. In fact...I think we'll explore a few more of these odd but innovative inventions next week. Until then, stay out of electrified baths.
PS - Thank you for taking the time to read my blog about historical quirks and eccentric travel! Your curiosity for the past and unique adventures is inspiring. As a token of appreciation, here's a discount on "The Good Time Girls."! Happy reading!
Her award-winning historical suspense and young adult historical fiction, written under the pen name Kim Taylor Blakemore, has been awarded a Silver Falchion Award, Tucson Festival of Book Literary Award, and a WILLA Award for Best YA Fiction.
In addition to writing, she runs the Novelitics Writers Collective, providing novel coaching, developmental editing, and workshops to novelists. Look for our first annual anthology in September. She teaches editing and craft workshops to writing groups around the United States and Canada.
She has hung her hat in California, Colorado, and currently the Pacific Northwest. The rain does not deter her research whether it be train timetables from 1905 or the best way to catch a loose horse.
SUBSCRIBE TO THE BLOG BELOW, AND HAVE IT DELIVERED RIGHT TO YOUR EMAIL: