The Victorian era is loosely defined as the period of the United Kingdom’s history under the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 until her death in 1901. England saw the demise of rural life and a focus on the establishment of cities and industry, which changed British society forever. See what life was like during the Victorian period and some of the things people did that we couldn’t fathom doing today.
They Wore Dangerously Tight Corsets
During the Victorian period, corsets were all the rage among ladies. They provided a way to reduce the size of a woman’s waist and hide any unwanted fat and skin.
Over time, certain styles of corsets took things to the extreme and could bring some waists down to a startling 14 inches! Not only were these horribly uncomfortable for the wearer, but they could also result in serious and irreversible external and internal damage.
Beware Of The Body Snatchers
In the early 1800s, doctors were legally permitted to have and research the bodies of those who had been condemned to death. Unfortunately, this proved to be less-than-helpful, as this way only barely above 50 bodies per year, and with a growing number of doctors, countless more cadavers were needed.
This demand for corpses quickly turned into a business with people looking to make a quick buck stealing bodies from fresh graves and selling them to medical schools. This practice became so common that loved ones would often watch over a new grave for days to prevent the body from being stolen.
They Would Pose With The Deceased
Today, when someone dies, they are usually buried or cremated shortly after, and that is that. Yet, the Victorians had a different way of doing things. Following the development of photographic technology, when someone passed away, it was not unusual to hire a photographer to take pictures of the deceased as though they were alive.
In some instances, the family and friends of loved ones would even pose with them. So, if you’re ever looking at an old Victorian photograph, try to guess if the subject is alive or not!
They Sent Unusual Christmas Cards
Christmas cards had still not been established as a popular holiday tradition during the 19th century, so the Victorians still hadn’t gotten the hang of them yet. This resulted in some rather unusual cards being offered during the holidays, with some of the subjects including dead birds, frightening snowmen, anthropomorphic animals and vegetables, and worse.
However, this wasn’t considered strange because it was what people found interesting at the time. As described by Penne Restad, author of Christmas in America, “In the 19th century, the iconography of Christmas had not been fully developed as it is now.”
Mummy Unwrapping Parties Weren’t Uncommon
After the discovery of several important artifacts, there was a renewed fascination in ancient Egypt that has since been described as “Egyptomania.” Although wealthy Europeans had been able to purchase mummies for centuries, the practice drastically increased in the 19th century, to the point that mummies were in high demand.
Wealthy English tourists would travel to Egypt and bring home a mummy as a souvenir. They’d then host mummy unwrapping parties where people would be invited to see what was beneath the bandages.
There Was No Shortage Of Arsenic
Today, most people know arsenic only as a deadly poison, but to the Victorians, it was just another ingredient in many of their common products, especially in the field of cosmetics. It was more common than not for arsenic to be found in medicines, wallpaper, toys, clothing, and more, due to its wide availability and low cost.
Even more bizarre is that the Victorians were well aware that arsenic is a poison, as it was frequently used in murders. Thankfully, in 1851, the Arsenic Act was passed, and although it wasn’t a ban, it regulated the amount of arsenic in products.
They Electrocuted Themselves As A Form of Healing
As electricity became more and more prominent during the 19th century, people also began experimenting with its medical applications. One practice that came out of this is known as electrotherapy, which would be used for conditions such as muscle weakness or gout.
Essentially, electrotherapy involved the patient being shocked in whatever region of the body was giving them problems. The logic was that the electricity would shock whatever the ailment was away and ease the muscles.
Nobody Was Safe From The Insane Asylums
During the 19th century, the populations in England’s insane asylums started booming, as they were a quick and effective way to get rid of a person someone didn’t like or to clean up the streets. The three primary classifications that people could be placed under were manic, melancholic, or those with dementia.
Of course, the standards to fit any of these labels were extremely vague, which led to countless people being locked up on account of “laziness,” “superstition,” “imaginary female trouble,” and even more unbelievable reasons.
Selling Their Wives Instead Of Divorce
Before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, divorce was not an option for married couples in England, except for the richest and most powerful people. So, to legally end a marriage, a loophole was created in which people could sell their wives. Either held in a public or private setting, men would put their wives up for sale, and men would bid on the woman.
Thankfully, the wife did have the power to veto a sale, and the situation wasn’t always bad. Not only did women get out of an unhealthy relationship, but many had the opportunity to marry new husbands who wanted them and would care for them.
They Thought There Was Medicinal Value In Corpses
For hundreds of years, people have believed that consuming certain parts of a deceased body could help cure them of an ailment. Although “corpse medicine” reached its height in the 16th and 17th centuries, it continued well into the Victorian era, with some medical texts claiming some unbelievable cures.
For instance, one text states that mixing part of the skull of a young woman with a syrup could help to cure epilepsy. It also wasn’t uncommon for executioners to also be in the corpse medicine business, selling parts of the recently deceased to eager patrons.
They Used Hippopotamus Teeth As Dentures
Today, dentures are made out of acrylic resin, which works perfectly to recreate the feeling and use of a human tooth. However, this process hadn’t been invented in the 19th century, and people were still desperate to replace any teeth that they may have lost.
One solution to this was to use the teeth of other mammals, with the hippopotamus strangely being one of the most popular. This is because their molars were large enough to be carved down to the proper size and shape.
They Hired People To Live As Hermits On Their Land
During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was typical for wealthy landowners to have expansive grounds and gardens for them to enjoy and host guests. Many Victorians were completely fascinated by eccentric people, and some would hire people to live on the grounds as hermits.
They were encouraged to grow their hair out, not bathe, dress as druids, and wander around as a source of entertainment or to provide advice. They would live on the grounds and would also be fed and cared for until they were released and usually gifted a stipend.
The Beach Wasn’t Very Relaxing For Women
While men had the freedom to relax and swim in the ocean in their bathing suits, going to the beach was an incredible ordeal for women. Considering all of the clothing they wore on a regular basis, it’s no surprise that the prim fashion trends didn’t stop at the beach.
Not only were women expected to wear modest and uncomfortable clothing, but bathing machines were invented, which allowed women to change in complete privacy at the water’s edge, go into the water, and directly back in to change again.
They Used Poisonous Eye Drops
Because you couldn’t see really any other part of a Victorian woman except for her face, they would go to great lengths to make their eyes an attractive feature. They would achieve this through the use of belladonna eye drops, which would dilate their pupils and produce a glow.
The downside, however, is that belladonna is poisonous and would cause blurred vision, an increased heart rate, and blindness if frequently used. Of course, this didn’t stop many women from using them.
Their Food Additives Were Incredibly Dangerous
Unfortunately, food sanitation was essentially non-existent during the Victorian period, making much of the food dangerous to eat, and that’s not even including what they put in the food on purpose.
Countless hazardous additives were put in food for various reasons, such as chalk and alum in the dough to make bread whiter or brewers using strychnine to cut down their cost of hops. Other additives that were frequently used included lead, copper sulfates, and just about anything else that could kill you while making food cheaper to make.
Black Was Worn Out Of Necessity
Although black is a popular color to wear for many reasons, it was worn mostly out of necessity during the Victorian era. Because there was no regulation regarding pollution, there was a constant haze of smoke and grime that, combined with the River Thames’ moisture, would coat London in thick, dense smog.
The smog would then build up on the side of buildings and stain clothing black, so many people wore a lot of black to hide their blackened clothes.
Lack Of Emergency Exits
Emergency exits may seem like a no-brainer these days, but such a concept didn’t exist back during the Victorian era. This, on top of open flames, shoddy electricity, and questionable architecture, resulted in countless tragedies.
For example, in 1876, 278 people died when the Brooklyn Theater burned down after a lantern fell on the stage. Even worse, in 1888, almost 200 children died in a stampede of children in a stairwell to see some traveling entertainers. This disaster led to the invention of the push-bar emergency exit.
Not Eating Was Basically A Sport
Believe it or not, long before the creation of the NFL or NBA, the people of the Victorian era would keep up with what were known as “fasting girls.” These young women were all over the newspapers and claimed that they could survive on nothing but air.
The girls would eat imaginary food in front of crowds, and then of course, secretly eat behind closed doors. On top of not having to the east, some fasting girls claimed to also have religious or magical powers.
Being A Professional Mourner Was A Booming Business
Otherwise known as Mutes, professional mourners during the Victorian period were individuals who would stand in silence during funerals looking incredibly sad. They would often wear very distinctive mourning clothes and follow the coffin as it was being taken to the gravesite.
Because there were so many deaths during this time, being a Mute was a popular profession, with many being hired for common funerals. Charles Dickens even included a mute in his novel Oliver Twist.
Orphaned Children Were Shipped Off
Unfortunately, orphaned and homeless children were a common sight in Victorian-era England, with historian Sarah Wise claiming there were more than 30,000 children living on the streets of London in 1869. Although some solutions were presented, such as building schools and orphanages, there were still too many to handle.
Many of them ended up being taken off the streets and shipped overseas to various British colonies where they worked as far help or indentured servants. This later proved to be a controversial practice, as the children rarely checked on once they had been relocated.