Enter the Nerd-ery
It’s not a time period I would have chosen, mind, but it is the period that seems to have chosen me. A couple of years ago, I found myself fascinated by Isabella Bird, a British middle-aged traveler/writer from the 1860s through the turn of the century who (among other feats of derring-do) rode a horse across the rougher parts of northern Japan in a time when women did not do such things. What followed was reading more of her books about her other adventures, as well as texts about her and the time. And, well. Rabbit hole.3
(For the tl;dr version of this newsletter: what is America and weren’t Victorians interesting?)
Perhaps the most enlightening and user-friendly of these books was Ruth Goodman’s How to be a Victorian, which explains for a modern reader pretty much what it says on the tin. Goodman walks us through a Victorian’s day from sun-up to sundown, from emptying the chamber pots4 to engaging in bedtime activitves.5 She looks across the almost-century of Queen Victoria’s reign and shows you what changed over the years, both for the better and the worse.
It’s a great resource and Goodman’s voice is engaging. What continued to make me go “huh” was how different their view of the world was, especially when it came to how bodies functioned. Most people seemed to believe that women’s torsos needed to be corseted so that they didn’t collapse.6 And while the scientists of the period had moved on from miasmas causing illness to germ theory, there wasn’t much to be done with this new knowledge.7 Poverty was crushing and widespread in ways it’s hard to fathom now, at least in more developed parts of the world. And yet, there was a feeling that Victorian Britain was the bright modern age.8
“Dr. Jaeger established his Sanitary Clothing Company, which expanded the perceived advantages of woolly-underwear wearing to include a detoxification and slimming function. He believed that wool-clad skin would be stimulated in its natural functions, exhaling more toxins and watery fats than skin that was merely covered in cotton: ‘The tissues may be automatically drained and kept drained, of the excess fat and water.’ This, he said, was far more efficacious as a means of losing weight than mere diet or exercise. However, in order to work fully and properly, woolly underwear, he maintained, was not enough.”
What you needed, of course, was an entire all-wool wardrobe. If you had even one cotton thread in your midst, the benefits of Sanitary Clothing would never manifest. Because of course.
Buying a new, slimming and draining wardrobe was only available to those with a little bit of money. The middle class was growing, yes, but the lower classes generally had one dress, a change of petticoats and slips, and not much else. As Goodman points out, the Victorians insisted that hard work never killed anybody “but many other Victorians knew that it most certainly did.”10
Most of you, I reckon, know about how hard it was for the poorest adults to scrape by. What I’d never thought about was what happened to Victorian babies while their moms were making money. Mostly, they were stoned.
“Many mothers, on account of needing to work, were in the habit of feeding opiates to their babies, such as Godfrey’s Cordial (a well-respected medicine of long standing based on pure opium), as well as doses of straight laudanum, so that their infants would sleep while they were at work during the day. Wages were so small that the whole family needed to be employed…. The need to sacrifice the welfare of one for the welfare of the whole family unit could therefore be extreme.”11
This had a whole knock-on12 effect. Babies on opiates tend to be too sleepy to eat, which leads to them “failing to thrive” and dying. If starvation didn’t get ‘em, poorly regulated pharmaceuticals would. There was no standard for how much opium/laudanum/etc was in the product, so a bottle of, say, Godfrey’s Cordial you bought in the East End would have a completely different dosage in SoHo, which led to well-meaning moms overdosing their babies.
Oh — and on that note — government regulation of food and drug is a good thing and anyone who tells you differently is selling something (likely to be fatal).
If you managed to survive into the middle part of the century, there was some good news. Most people found themselves with leisure time. Going to the races was a popular activity but there were perils:
“[They often] erupted into violence. Usually, it took the form of common brawling, but, according to the Birmingham Mercury, in 1855 the day at Aston Park ended with 11,000 ruffians dividing into two gangs of ‘British’ and “Russians’ to re-enact the battles of the Crimea, with many participants ripping up the fence posts around the race course to use as weapons. The action spread into the neighboring town, and 16 people were hospitalized.”
Not for nothing, but I do think modern soccer hooligans are missing an opportunity by opting for wanton destruction rather than re-enacting the battles of the Crimea. There’s just no pride in craftsmanship anymore.
Goodman’s book is exactly what I needed to frame how Bird13 would have viewed her place in the world. Given my newfound employment at the Farmers’ Museum (our time period is roughly 1840-60), I’d love to have a similar tome for the U.S. One doesn’t seem to exist and might be unwriteable.14 Our country was so big even then, and so varied that there isn’t a good way to categorize what life might have been like. While Goodman does a great job of trying to sum up all of Britain across class and rural/urban divisions, the idea of Britain was fully established by then, which made it more unified. In the middle of the 19th century, the idea of America was amorphous — and we were about to fight ourselves in search of a definition. We’re still fighting, btw.
But beyond some feeling of “Americanness,” the practicalities of life were very different in Boston or the Colorado Territory or cotton country. Today, many of those everyday differences have been leveled for the most part. Still, our country remains unsettled. Maybe that is our defining characteristic.
I can’t leave you without this quick link to Dr. Jen Gunter’s podcast “Body Stuff,” which isn’t about Victorian Britain but is very good and worth your time. There is, however, one tiny link to all of this in her episode about poop, in which Gunter talks about what might be the most lasting way this period informed the modern world vis a vis toilets.
Did you like this newsletter? Tell two friends! Or, if you hated it, tell two enemies!
There are a couple of people reading this who now have a very puzzled expression on their faces and are muttering “sometimes?” But I’m being honest. Most of the time, I do totally normal things that any American woman does, like yell about the patriarchy and think about naps.
(that’s what she said)
This all is the basis for the book proposal I have kicking around with various editors. Fingers remained crossed.
which was done, you’ll be shocked to discover, by the women in the house.
This became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Girls were corseted from an early age, which meant that they never really had to develop any core strength, which meant that by the time they were young women, they really couldn’t hold themselves stable for long.
It would be another few decades before the idea of an antibiotic was even stumbled upon.
Of course, all of this makes you wonder how our modern age will be viewed nearly 200 years from now. Provided civilization lasts that long.
I wonder what they’d make of the “no one wants to work anymore” trope making the rounds right now?
This passage is what I will flap in the face of the next scold who thinks modern moms are doing it wrong when they put their kid in front of a screen in order to get something done. I mean… it’s not opium.
remember, what kicked this all off was Isabella Bird