Historical Spectacles People Used to Travel to See

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.

Albert Einstein

From the macabre to the downright odd, people have been traveling to see mind-boggling sites for millennia. Aside from a few museums, these attractions and spectacles are a thing of the past, but thousands of people used to make it a point to travel and view these exhibits, sites, etc. Times were different, but there never has and most likely never will be a shortage of people who want to see life’s weird offerings, manmade or naturally occurring.

Below are just a sampling of tourist attractions that are (dare I say fortunately?) no longer attractions today. While some are preserved as museums, these are all events and sites that people used to eagerly visit and view and are no longer available to interact with today. Maybe people learned that corpses don’t make the best tourist attractions or that hanging out in cemeteries doesn’t increase your social standing anymore. Either way, enjoy these attractions from this blog post and soak in the history however odd it may have been.

Viewing Corpses in Paris, France

During the 1800s, morgues in Paris and many other cities had exhibition rooms for family members to identify their kin. However, family members were not the only ones to view corpses. Newspapers often reported deaths, especially unusual cases which brought out the locals in droves. One murder of a small child brought over 150,000 people to view the body in Paris. By the end of the 19th century, the morgue was one of the top tourist attractions in the city and was featured in most guidebooks. Morgue visits were often crowded and even were rowdy enough for the police to intervene.

Many morgues had tons of visitors across Europe, but the Paris morgue was built with the intention to attract more visitors. It was placed in an ideal location, behind Notre Dame and was open longer hours and every day of the week. The main goal was to be able to identify more corpses, but the process also catered towards entertaining. The viewing room could hold 50 people and the bodies were placed naked behind a curtain or glass wall with their clothing hung beside them. During this time, police officers would bring murder suspects to the morgue confront their victims, making for a dramatic visit indeed. The Paris morgue decided to install bright lights to give the “audience” an atmosphere more attuned to a theater.

Cabinets of Curiosities

Photo from fringesocity.org

Think of your favorite museum. It probably got its start or inspiration from a Cabinet of Curiosities. These collections of “curiosities” rose to fame among Europe’s elite (especially in Italy) during the Renaissance Period. Collecting precious, unusual, or otherwise impressive objects had become something of a habit for the wealthy across time, however it wasn’t until the 17th century when these objects were organized and displayed for their peers to see.

The cabinet of curiosities started out as, you guessed it, a cabinet or a drawer. As more items were acquired the cabinets grew and sometimes occupied entire rooms. Items were extremely varied, sometimes completely fake, and were included based solely on the tastes of the owner of the cabinet or ‘wonder room’. These rooms or cabinets were used to uphold or facilitate the owner’s role in society. The more unusual or prestigious items a person could acquire, the better your standing in societal views could become.

Today, cabinets of curiosities don’t really exist outside museums, but they did influence museums to form including well-respected behemoths like the British Museum. If you want to see items from the cabinets, look no further than your favorite museum. Exhibits still exist in most large museums, but the best examples are the Ashmolean Museum in England and the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, PA.

Public Gatherings and Picnics in Cemeteries

Obviously, cemeteries still exist. However, they are not considered a treasured pastime anymore. Beginning in the early 19th century, but thriving in the later half of the century, picnics and social gatherings in cemeteries were the thing to do. Many cities and towns lacked public spaces and parks, so options for ‘hanging out’ were few and far between. It was common to see New Yorkers strolling through a graveyard with baskets full of snack foods and sandwiches with friends or family.

On a sad note, diseases such as yellow fever and cholera made death a very common occurrence during this time. Family members would choose to dine on or near the grave sites of those recently departed to keep their memories alive. As cemeteries became inundated with litter from these picnics and police were even called on occasion as the crowds became too large. The cemetery picnic’s popularity began to wane during the 1920s as death became less of a common occurrence and today, you’d have to get several permits before you even thought about a picnic in a cemetery.

Rotting Whale Traveling Exhibit

Heard of Jonah the Giant Whale? Probably not, but I have on my quest this week to find odd spectacles! As it turns out, Jonah was one of three whales dunked in formaldehyde, placed in a semi-truck, and toured around Europe in the 1950s and 60s. Jonah, Goliath, and Hercules remain somewhat of a mystery to this day as details on their tour are lacking. During these decades, marine science was closer to its infancy than the sophisticated, data-driven field it is today, so many people had never even seen a whale before.

During the Middle Ages, whales were depicted as monsters of the deep. While the 20th century views around whales was much more wild, the idea of a traveling side show featuring a 76-foot long sea creature that weighed several tons was probably irresistible. While traveling with a preserved whale was most likely disgustingly smelly and a logistical nightmare, someone made this happen and thousands of people came to see these whales across Europe. Luckily, we have documentaries, scientific photos and footage, as well as the ability to scuba dive and see these creatures first hand. Most importantly, we can see them alive.

Industrial Grand Openings

The opening of a water treatment plant, reservoir, or observatory might not get your wanderlust fired up, but during the 19th century these events were a big deal and many people traveled far and wide to view these events. Industrial grand openings were events for the elite and many of the companies catered to them to bring awareness or score a donation. Dance floors were even installed and parties held at these locations to bring more people to events and grand openings.

Scientific tourism is nothing new and people have been traveling for centuries to see new and unique spectacles. Today, these events are few and far between. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to watch these events at home, but that just wasn’t possible throughout most of the past. The last great scientific tourism event was the infamous rocket launch from the Kennedy Center in 1969. Who knows, scientific tourism could make a comeback, especially as traveling exhibits gain more popularity. Until then, it’s an unusual spectacle of the past.

3 thoughts on “Historical Spectacles People Used to Travel to See

  1. Absolutely inspired and fascinating topic. Superbly presented. I was left wanting more (from the safe distance of my modern computer). People have always seemed to be drawn to the unfamiliar and unusual. Seeking knowledge or technical inspiration? Satisfying curiosity? Confirmation of the reality? The Elephant Man. Museum mummies. The exotic zoo surrounding the Tower of London. Emma’s university lab associate, King Richard III…


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