My grandmother always told me I reminded her of her mother. Maybe that's why I have hundreds of pictures of my great-grandma wearing corset, bustle and perfect updos, the quintessential Victorian lady who spent her youth going back and forth across the Atlantic before she settled in New York City. I've always been fascinated by the era.
The period, which covers the reign of Queen Victoria of England from 1837-1901, was a time of huge technological change, which is why some have suggested it's similar to the modern era. Shows like "Downton Abbey" have revived interest in English life on a broader level, but some people, like author Ruth Goodman, have zeroed in on the era, even experimenting with living as Victorians once did. Goodman's book about her experience,"How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Living," is an incredible guide to the time period, taking readers through the day-to-day lives of a variety of people who lived at that time. I found it nothing short of fascinating.
And let me take a moment here to acknowledge that I fully understand that this wasn't a great time in human history for many people. I'm not trying to gloss over the racism, misogyny, religious intolerance or other aspects of the time that were genuinely awful. That being understood, there are many interesting aspects of Victorian life, and exploring them doesn't require you to ignore other parts of history, or to be ignorant of them.
Goodman's descriptions of what it was like for a "regular" person are my favorite parts of the book. Oftentimes what we see on TV and in movies are the lives of the upper classes or the very wealthy. Goodman details what life was like for middle-class types and for the poor, which makes for a much more holistic understanding of how people lived.
Goodman's book is absolutely packed with details, but here's a taste of some of what she reveals, including some trends that are oddly similar to modern life.
1. Cosmetics were dangerous then, too.
While painting one's face was looked down upon during the Victorian era, women (and men) used all kinds of usually homemade cosmetics to enhance their features anyway. Starch was used as face powder (cold cream and starch together created a basic concealer recipe), and beetroot or crushed cochineal powder could be mixed with animal fat and white wax to make blush or lip color. These home concoctions were generally safe, though off-the-shelf versions were available too. Unfortunately, store-bought versions often contained lead and other toxins, which could be absorbed through the skin, promising a host of negative health consequences. As Goodman details in her book, "The Lady's Book warned: 'The most deleterious sorts of paints are those in which mineral or metallic prevail. Great care ought, therefore, to be paid to the nature of such articles, especially when bought ready prepared; and nothing of this sort should be used without knowing the ingredients of which is composed.' Sounds pretty similar to advice we've shared on MNN, and the push for cosmetic companies to reveal ingredients is still ongoing, with many consumers refusing to use products that don't list them. (To protect their trade secrets, companies are not forced by law to list them.)
2. People have always needed alarm clocks.
If you're like me, you may have assumed that people in previous era were somehow able to wake with the sun. And there's some truth to that, as Goodman writes in her book: "Dawn was the signal for most working people to rise," but there were many people who had to work before dawn or be on time — and then, as now, some people had more trouble with that than others. Goodman explains the solution: "For those who had to keep very early hours or be punctual, such as factory workers, the services of of a 'knocker-upper' were invaluable. Armed with a long cane and a lantern, a knocker-upper wandered the streets at all hours, tapping on the windowpanes of his clients. One of the reasons for this unusual profession was that clocks and watches were expensive items, and few working-class people could afford their own. For the knocker-upper, however, a capital investment in a timepiece could provide the basis for a meagre livelihood."
3. Going to the gym was a thing.
At least for men, attending a gymnasium was a practice available to both the wealthy and the middle class by the mid-1800s, and free facilities existed in some areas. The Lambeth Public Baths in London drained the pools in winter and converted them to gyms. "It offered parallel bars, a boxing ring, dumb-bells and fencing, as well as a running track," Goodman writes. Exercise was recommended for women and girls too, but not too vigorous — it was believed that anything more than stately walks in fresh air and easy calisthenics could upset a woman's reproductive system. (Doctors believed that the uterus could move around the body.) Of course, lower-class women did all kinds of punishing labor, so while most families tried to "protect" women from vigorous exercise, it was inherent to many women's everyday lives.
The horse-drawn omnibus was a bumpy mode of transportation in cities like London. (Photo: Leonard Bentley/flickr)
4. Commuting was a pain.
It could be argued that commuting was invented by the Victorians: The expansion of the railways meant that wealthy and middle-class people could live further away from their jobs. But in cities like London, there were also horse-drawn omnibuses, which were bumpy carts that had interior and exterior spots for customers. "Just as on the London Underground train today during rush hour, a failure to follow the etiquette of omnibus travel provoked hard stares and sharp comments," Goodman writes, reminding me of the many "Do's and Don'ts on the NYC subway" articles that abound online. Train commuting, the first subway line in 1863, and the continued use of more modern omnibuses contributed to many people being able to move out of cities or to the edges of them, pushing urban boundaries further. Throughout the era, commuting was a rough ride, no matter the conveyance, and often a filthy one, since trains and subways belched smoke and soot, and seats were narrow and hard.
5. Nobody wanted to do the laundry.
Goodman writes, "Perhaps the job most loathed by Victorian womanhood was doing the laundry. Anyone who could afford to pay someone else to do it for them did so. Laundry involved hard physical toil and enormous disruption to the usual routine." Here's why it was such a chore: Water had to be heated on the stove or range (which meant cooking for the day was limited or eliminated). Laundry was so tough on fabrics that any small tears or holes had to be fixed prior to washing, lest the process exacerbate the issue. Fabrics had to be sorted carefully (including by level of dirtiness — and in many cases this meant real dirt, grease, coal dust, blood and other truly filthy stuff had to be cleaned out first.) Fabrics were often soaked for at least a day or two. Then the people doing the washing woke up a couple of hours early and dumped all the old water (a job in itself to cart the water out when there was no indoor plumbing), and hot water and soap added. Then the cleaning began, with much scrubbing of particularly dirty areas (collars, cuffs of shirts and pants, where dirt concentrated). Then there was "dollying" or "passering" as Goodman details, which was the actual agitation, just like what happens in a washing machine today. Except in the Victorian era, clothing and linens were actually beaten and bashed — by a strong woman with a large paddle — while the clothes were swirled around. And let's just say that rinsing, wringing, drying and ironing were all just as time consuming — not to mention exhausting.
While many parts of the Victorian era seem appealing, plenty of them don't — which doesn't mean there aren't things to take from that time period. The idea that we should all be able to fix the mechanical machines in our life (or have a local repair person to do so) instead of relying on planned obsolescence is one of the most obvious I can think of. And personally, I love long skirts — though I'll skip the corset!