Over a 3,000 year period, ancient Egyptians created at least 70 million mummies - and Victorians came up with bizarre and disturbing uses for the ancient bodies. Ground Egyptian mummies were sold to artists as paint, and the wealthy bought tickets to mummy unwrapping parties. A hospital raised money by sending a mummy on tour, while farmers bought up mummy fertilizer for their crops. This list of what Europeans and Americans did with mummies isn't for the faint of heart: countless of people consumed powdered mummies as medicine.
Like the Chilean Chinchorro mummies, Egypt's desert climate helped preserve millions, turning them into one of the most valuable national resources for the country. Some hunters made fortunes selling mummies, while others brought home pieces as presents. Victorians found many uses for the remains of mummies - whether they should have is another question.
In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain described the first railroad in Egypt. The desert country lacked trees, and coal was expensive to import, so the Egyptians turned to a different fuel source: mummies. “The fuel use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose,” Twain wrote.
While some believe the tale is fiction rather than fact, ancient Egyptians mummified an estimated 70 million humans and animals. And another 19th-century traveler reported that if they ran out of kindling or wood, they often threw a mummy on the fire.
As early as the 16th century, Europeans imported mummies as a form of medicine. Doctors ground up the cadavers, marketing them as "mummia." The powdered mummy might be swallowed or rubbed onto an injury, supposedly treating coughs, joint pain, epilepsy, and dysentery.
Even royalty used mummies as medicine. In France, King Francis I consumed one pinch of ground mummy each day, often paired with rhubarb. Egyptologist Salima Ikram explains that Francis believed the combination would protect him. King Charles II of England rubbed powdered mummy into his skin, believing he could absorb the "greatness" of the Egyptians. Charles also took "The King's Drops" to protect his health. The concoction was made from ground up human skull and alcohol.
In the 19th century, surgeon and mummy expert Thomas Pettigrew complained:
No sooner was it credited that mummy constituted an article of value in the practice of medicine than many speculators embarked in the trade; the tombs were sacked, and as many mummies as could be obtained were broken into pieces for the purpose of sale.
People in the 19th century came up with an unusual reusable grocery bag. According to Mummies in Nineteenth-Century America, Americans wrapped their groceries in mummy wrappings during the Civil War. The idea came from Isaac Augustus Stanwood, who ran a paper empire.
When the fighting created a shortage of rags, Stanwood imported mummies from Egypt. He then turned the linen wrappings into a slurry and created brown sheet paper. The mummy wrappings were used by grocers to wrap food.
From the 18th century into the 20th, painters used "mummy brown" in their art. A Parisian art shop in 1712 called itself "A La Momie," marketing powdered mummies as a paint. Artists praised the new paint source, claiming "it flows from the brush with a delightful freedom and evenness."
As late as 1915, English paint stores were still selling mummy brown - and one even claimed that a single mummy created enough powdered paint to last for 20 years. Not every artist was thrilled with the product. Painter Edward Burne-Jones, for example, had no idea his paint contained mummies until a fateful lunch.
Another artist, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, mentioned he wanted to visit the art shop to see a mummy before it was ground into paint. When Burne-Jones learned that real mummies went into his paint, he rushed to his studio to find a tube of mummy brown. The group gathered around as Burne-Jones dug a hole in the grass and planted the tube after he "insisted on our giving it a decent [ceremony] there and then."
Color-maker Roberson's of London ran out of mummies in 1964. The managing director announced:
We might have a few odd limbs lying around somewhere, but not enough to make any more paint. We sold our last complete mummy some years ago for, I think, £3. Perhaps we shouldn't have. We certainly can't get any more.