History is an incredibly broad subject. Historians can spend their entire careers focusing on a few highly specific topics. But for the rest of us, history might seem less like something to be pieced together using evidence and interpretation and more like a collection of facts. Many high school history classes find students expected to memorize specific dates, name certain important historical figures, or identify some significant societal shifts. Often, though, this knowledge doesn't do much to make history feel very alive.
This is likely part of the reason why we crave surprising, strange or amusing facts about history so much. For example, knowing that George Washington had wooden teeth or hearing the strange story of Rasputin's death isn't really crucial to understanding their roles in history, but it can help make them seem more interesting. The problem with this is that we’re so eager to learn and share these weird and amusing anecdotes that sometimes we don't seem to care if they’re true or not. How many times have you heard that Ancient Romans had an entire room just for vomiting in after meals? Well, it turns out it isn’t true but gets repeated over and over again because it makes for a good anecdote. That said, there’s no shortage of genuinely shocking historical facts out there. Do you know which ones are true and which ones aren’t?
For a few months in the 1800s, Canada became a part of the United States
Canada and the United States are some of the fiercest allies in the world. They both began as British colonies. Whereas the US declared their independence in the 18th century and won a war defending it, Canada remained a part of the Commonwealth and gradually gained more and more independence from England over the last few centuries. The war of 1812, however, saw the US invading Canada as part of a campaign against the United Kingdom. Did they successfully annex Canada for a short time during this war?
Kellogg's Corn Flakes were originally developed in the 1890s as a way of supressing the urge to masturbate.
Corn Flakes is perhaps the most nondescript of the major breakfast cereals on the market. In a cereal aisle filled with colorful mascots, sugary flavors and strange gimmicks, Corn Flakes stand out as a symbol of adulthood and seriousness. I'd bet that few people love Corn Flakes--they just consider it to be the most dignified cereal to eat every morning. If this fact is true, however, its origins are far more interesting than you might assume. Was the cereal originally developed by John Harvey Kellogg as a food that would reduce people's urge to masturbate?
Albert Einstein failed math class at age 10.
Albert Einstein is one of the most important figures of the past hundred years. His development of the theories of general relativity and special relativity had an enormous impact on our modern understanding of physics and are still being built on today. Besides contributing the domain of science, he is also an iconic part of pop culture. His wild hair, moustache, and playful personality had helped to create our popular image of the eccentric scientist. Part of his mystique is the much-circulated story that he failed math class as a boy. Is this true?
There is evidence Polynesian explorers had small settlements in Antarctica over 1000 years ago.
Antarctica is the most isolated and inhospitable continent on the planet. While every other continent has been inhabited by humans for tens of thousands of years, Antarctica has long been populated only by a very specific group of animals. Even today, only a handful of people (mostly researchers) live there at any given time. But did a small group of Polynesian explorers, a society known for their expertise in maritime navigation, reach Antarctica and establish a temporary settlement there centuries before Europeans did in the 1800s?
Until the 20th century, pink was commonly associated with boys and blue with girls.
Gender is a complicated subject, and many longstanding assumptions about gender and how it operates in society are increasingly coming under scrutiny, both in the field of science and in people's everyday lives. There are all sorts of cultural differences in how gender is expressed today across the world and even more differences in how it has been expressed in the past. For example, you may have heard it said that our association of blue with boys and pink with girls is quite a recent idea--the opposite has been prevalent as late as the 1920s. Is this true?
Mozart once wrote a song called "Lick Me in the Arse".
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is among the most celebrated figures in music history. Known for his extremely prolific (if brief) career and for his very precocious childhood, his most well-known works include the operas The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro, as well as his final composition, The Requiem. We often think of people from the past as being more refined and less crass than people are today so it's difficult to imagine anyone as highly regarded as Mozart in the 18th century writing something so vulgar. Could it be true?
Queen Victoria became queen at only 2 years old.
Queen Victoria was formerly the longest-reigning British monarch in history. She was surpassed in 2015 by her great-great-granddaughter and current Queen of England, Elizabeth II. Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901, assuming the throne at a young age. In the situation where the person ascending to the throne is a minor or is otherwise unable to assume their functions as monarch, the protocol is to have a family member or someone else close to the monarch act as a regent on their behalf. Was Queen Victoria 2 years old when this happened?
The brother of Abraham Lincoln's assassin once saved the life of Lincoln's son
You've probably heard the broad details of Abraham Lincoln's 1865 assassination by John Wilkes Booth: the fact that he was shot in the back of the head while watching a play. But there are a few bizarre facts about the assassination that are less well-known. For one thing, Booth was a well-known actor at the time and his brother, Edwin Booth was likely the most famous American actor of the century. Did Edwin really save the life of Lincoln's son just a few months before his brother assassinated the president or is this just an urban legend?
The earliest known airship was flown in 1431 in Kyoto, Japan.
When people speak of the development of human flight, they often start by discussing the series of early planes built and flown by the Wright brothers in the early 1900s. While these two men are usually considered to have successfully built the heavier-than-air fixed-wing flying machines in history (though even this is the subject of much debate), earlier methods of flight like hot air balloons and blimps already existed. These earlier methods did not rely on an engine and simply used heated air or light gases (like helium or hydrogen) in order to fly.
The Soviet Union had already sent a dog to the moon by the time of the Apollo moon landing.
The Space Race was one of the many proxy battles of the Cold War. Unlike the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan, however, the Space Race was a peaceful way for the Soviet Union and the United States to build themselves up as the world's dominant superpower. The Space Race started in 1957 after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, into orbit. While US astronauts landed on the moon in 1969, is it true that the Soviet Union had managed to land a dog on the moon a few months earlier?
In England, tomatoes were widely believed to be inedible for hundreds of years.
Tomatoes, like many of the foods associated so strongly with European (in this case, Italian and Spanish) cuisine, is not originally native to the continent. The salty and acidic fruit originated in Central America and was brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s and did not catch on as a staple food in places like Italy and Spain for over a hundred years. Is it true that, despite the knowledge of their popularity in these countries, the English thought them to be unfit to eat or even poisonous until the mid-1700s?
Handheld guns existed in China as early as the 13th century.
Guns are likely not the first thing that would come to mind if you think about Chinese battles of the 1200s. Although it's certainly easier to picture if you aren't imagining revolvers or modern semi-automatic pistols. Cannons are nearly a thousand years old and began in China before spreading to Europe and the Middle East so if anyone at that time would have thought to use gunpowder in handheld weapons, it would have been the armies of the Song Dynasty. Then again, it took hundreds of years before handheld firearms became common across the world.
There are more people currently living than dead.
The global population has grown enormously in the last few centuries. This is due to several factors including--but not limited to--widespread industrialization, making global trade more common, significant advances in medicine, and massively increased capacity for food production. For the vast majority of Earth's history, the population had never even approached 1 billion and yet today the global population is above 7 billion. But is it possible that the number of people that have died since modern humans first emerged is lower than the number of people alive today?
During World War I, troops on both sides of the Eastern Front declared an unofficial truce on Christmas 1914 and celebrated together.
World War I, though perhaps not as often discussed or thought about by most people as World War II is, has a well-earned reputation for being particularly brutal and inhumane. After all, it saw extensive use of chemical weapons, countless diseases brought on by poor living conditions and over 10 million casualties. Nevertheless, there is a story that gets told quite often about troops on both sides of the Eastern Front peacefully spending the first Christmas of the war together. Is this true, or just a common myth?
Woolly Mammoths still existed at the the time of the construction of the Great Pyramids.
Close your eyes and imagine a woolly mammoth. You might picture them walking through a frozen wasteland during the ice age (maybe one of them is voiced by Ray Romano) or you might imagine one being hunted by a group of cavemen with wooden spears and stone knives. You certainly know that they're extinct and that there aren't any pictures of them alive. Some think they must have been extinct for at least a hundred years or more before man. But when they actually went extinct is probably a bit less obvious to you. Were there any left 5000 years ago?
Before encountering Europeans, the Aztec Empire travelled to Japan several times.
The fact that the Pre-Columbian empires of Central and South America (including the Mayan, Inca and Aztec empires) had their accomplishments downplayed or ignored by their European conquerors is slowly becoming more well-known to people today, although there's still much work to be done. Few people realize, for example, that it was under the Aztec Empire that the first recorded example of mandatory education for all its children, regardless of class or gender, occurred. The empire also had robust and expansive trade networks. Did their search for trading partners ever lead them across the Pacific Ocean to Japan?
Snakes did not exist in the Americas until they were brought by Europeans.
Many of the plants and animals we associate with a place or culture are not actually indigenous to that region. A good example of this would be chili peppers, which are central to the cuisines of Thailand and India, are indigenous to the Americas, and only arrived in Europe and Asia through trade. Today, snakes are quite widespread across the planet and live on every continent except Antarctica. They range from huge and dangerous snakes found in places like Australia to harmless garden snakes found in cooler climates.
Lobsters were originally considered a dish for the lower classes.
Food does not exist in a vacuum. There's more to how we eat than its taste and nutritional value. What we eat, how we prepare food and how we consume inevitably has something to do with culture. Today lobster is something of a delicacy, associated with money and living large. But has it always been this way? They do look like giant aquatic bugs, something which wouldn't exactly be the most tempting treat for people encountering it for the first time. Then again, maybe eating something that looked so hideous would have been considered a worthy challenge.
In 1770, a Slovak inventor created a fake chess-playing robot that fooled people around the world for decades.
Though robots have only truly existed for a few decades, the idea of them has existed in the popular imagination for thousands of years. The word itself comes from a 1920 Czech play called Rossum's Universal Robots, but the concept of inanimate objects being imbued with consciousness or given the ability to move by their own volition goes back much further. The folkloric character known as the Golem is one such example of these fictional automatons. In recent decades, chess playing robots have been quite popular, but were they predated by a hoax chess-playing automaton by hundreds of years?
Upon his death, the head of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham was covered in a varnish and put on display.
Jeremy Bentham was an extremely important English philosopher who lived from 1748 to 1832. His most enduring legacy is likely the ethical theory of Utilitarianism, a system of thought in which the morality of actions are determined by their tangible and discernible effect on other people's happiness. This secular and materialist view of morality went against long-standing ideas of morality as a spiritual duty. An often-repeated anecdote about Bentham is that, upon his request, his head was "mummified" after his death and put on display so as to preserve his legacy. Is it true, or is another Walt Disney situation?
The majority of Rome's Emperors were born in what is now India.
The Roman Empire may not have been the largest empire during the Antiquity, but their enormous influence on the regions they conquered is still felt today. This is evident through things like the ubiquity of Christianity and the Latin alphabet throughout Europe. However, their empire extended well beyond Europe into parts of Asia and North Africa. The city of Rome itself, the Empire’s capital, was a highly diverse place, with citizens born all across the Empire calling it home. Was the region of South Asia, now known as India, in fact, the birthplace of the majority of Rome’s emperors?
A popular sport in medieval Ireland involved tossing sheep into piles of hay. Whoever sent it the furthest won the round.
When we think of medieval times, we might assume that people back then (or at least people who weren't rich) spent all day working and didn't have much time or inclination to play games. In reality, however, sports have been played in virtually every human society. Soccer, for example, has its roots in European cities in the Middle Ages. Some games of the era didn't catch on quite as much, though, for a variety of reasons. Did Irish shepherds in the Middle Ages really play this sheep-tossing sport?
In Ancient Egyptian society, women soldiers, scholars and priests were relatively common.
Too often we tend to think of history as a continual improvement over the past. Telling someone to "get with the times" or that "it's 2017" implies that certain attitudes or traditions ought to have been done away with by now. While it is certainly true that large swathes of the population have been moving in certain social directions over the last several centuries, there's no reason to believe society "naturally" becomes more egalitarian over time. But is it true that women in Ancient Egypt had this much freedom to choose their career path?
The traditional currency used for centuries on the island of Yap were massive circular stones weighing up to 8000 lbs.
Currency, while not present in every society throughout history, is quite a common concept. This is understandable since it's certainly easier to go to a market with a couple of coins in your purse than to bring everything you're willing to trade with you. Sometimes, currency is something that has a precise value like a coin made of gold or silver. Other times currency simply represents an agreed-upon and enforced value; essentially a universal IOU note. With this in mind, did the residents of the island of Yap really use such large stones as currency?
The two earliest countries to adopt Christianity as their official religion were Ethiopia and Armenia.
Although the spread of Christianity throughout much of Eurasia--a few hundred years after its emergence in the Middle East--came largely due to the Roman Empire’s decision to adopt it as the official religion of the empire in 380 AD, it was not actually the first state do so. It remains a subject of historical debate which state was the first to adopt the religion. Is it agreed upon that it was one of either Ethiopia or Armenia?