No Wire Hangers, Ever

I’m reading Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House (2003), which is answering a lot of questions I had about everyday Victorian life. As I spend most of my time reading Victorian literature, I don’t actually know a lot about they dealt with the mundane or gross things that everyone experiences in the typical day-to-day.

This is largely because these common practices could generally go without saying to the intended Victorian audience (for example, as a writer, would you need to explain to an audience  of your same culture and time period what you used for toilet paper?). Secondly, some of that information (like toilet paper) would have been considered indecent to write about.

One of the things that I’ve always wondered was where and how women stored their huge dresses, especially ones that were accompanied by hoops, crinolines, or bustles. I have personally worn period-accurate Victorian clothing in various plays I’ve been in, and that shit is cumbersome and difficult to store. It’s not like you could hang up some of these dresses in a closet–the weight of the fabric would distort the shape of the shoulders as they pulled down on the hanger. Plus, there isn’t a ton of closet space in the UK  (at least not in the old flats I’ve lived in, and certainly not compared to the closet space in the US), so hanging loads of dresses might not have been a viable option.

So what did women do with these heavy, bulky gowns? I know that if a woman was going to an all-day or overnight party, her maid would generally bring the dress she was to change into, and it would be laid out flat in a long white box, so it didn’t crease.

As it turns out, “[t]rays and boxes for storing clothes were common – hangers were not in general use until the 1900s (when they were referred to as ‘shoulders’), so clothes either hung from pegs or were folded. Small houses and yards of fabric in every dress mean that advice book were constantly contriving additional storage: in hollow stools, benches, ottomans. Even bulkier items were folded: Robert Edis, another interiors expert, recommended that halls should have cupboards ‘with shelves arranged for coats.'”

So, to answer my own question, where did women put their dresses?








That's a Horse of a Different Color

Do you guys want a healthy dose of old-school sexism? Check out the rhetoric in this article from the Leeds Mercury on January 31, 1807:

“The following extraordinary circumstance have recently taken place in Dublin: A person who had served a most respectable family with zeal and fidelity as a manservant, for upwards of six years, was, on Friday last taken ill, and confined to bed.

“A most unaccountable reluctance was evinced on the part of the person indisposed to admit the offices of a physician, until in alarming crisis in the disorder, induced the master of the family to insist on having recourse to medical advice, which however, there was not sufficient time to procure before honest James was delivered of a bouncing girl!

“It is unnecessary to add until that moment that the real sex of this newly-discovered heroine had never been suspected. It is no less extraordinary that she was particularly adroit in attending on horses, and several times accompanied the gentleman of the family on severe fox chases.”

Guys. That last sentence.

Doctor: Sir, I am required to inform you that your faithful servant, James, who you have known for six years, is actually a woman.

Master of the House: My word.

Doctor: She was just delivered of a daughter.

Master of the House: You don’t say.

Doctor: Don’t forget sir, that the very same James, who rode a horse so skillfully, was actually a woman the whole time.


Belle of the Ball

I found another amazing story that first appeared in the Illustrated Police News, February 5, 1898.

"An extraordinary shooting affair took place the other night at Keystone, West Virginia. During a dance at a ball an awkward country youth accidentally trod on the foot of a girl of unusually good looks, and the acknowledged belle of the ball. She called upon him to apologise, but he declined, as he was unconscious of having touched her foot.

"She thereupon whipped a revolver out of her pocket and shot him dead. She was promptly arrested and placed in gaol, but says she is glad she shot him. The town is greatly excited over the murder. Many persons believe that the rudeness of the youth was not the real cause of the shooting".



The Frenzy

I was reading one of Mallory Ortberg's posts on The Toast and I stumbled across this painting.


Let's just . . . let's just soak in this image for a minute.

I didn't know what is the sweet, ever-loving fuck was happening in this photo, so I just stared at it for about 16 hours, focusing particularly on the face that Miley Cyrus-horse is making.

Then I looked it up, because all things had ceased to have meaning. Sometimes you stare into the horse and sometimes the horse stares back into you.

Turns out, this painting is aaaaaaall about female orgasm, which suddenly made all the sense in the world. The painting is called Frenzy of Exultations, or otherwise just known as Frenzy, and it was rather scandalously created in 1893 by the Polish artist Władysław Podkowiński.

Apparently the concept for the painting was refined as the artist went through some drama in his romantic life. According to Wikipedia, "In his vision, Podkowiński elevates erotic ecstasy to an absolute value, regarding it, in accordance with the psychologism current for that time, as the cosmic power and determinant of the human condition."

I haven't a fucking clue what this means. Help me, I can't art, and I most certainly can't art when a horse is looking at me like that. Make it stop.

Regardless, people got the message that something profound and sexy and scandalous was happening, and his painting earned oodles of money for the museum in which it was displayed. However, he wasn't able to find a buyer for the painting. I'm sure it was one of those 'let's go look at it in the museum and be indignant, but also maybe a little titillated, but never admit it, and certainly not admit it through purchasing the painting, gross' things.

Come on, fuckos, you know you want that in your front parlor. If for no other reason than because Aunt Mildred will never visit again.

Anyway, about a month into the painting's display at the museum, Podkowiński came in and slashed his own painting with a knife. The artist, who was very ill, then died within the year, leading some people to speculate that his death was a suicide and his slashing of the painting was the result of being spurned by the woman whom inspired it and is likely depicted in it.

(or maybe he was spurned by the horse? I don't judge)

The painting was restored after his death. If I've learned one thing from reading the Charlie Mortdecai novels, it's that cutting up paintings is actually not that serious a deal. I mean, obviously, it's not good for them, but an expert art restorer should be able to lift the paint perfectly from a damaged canvas and place it on a new canvas without the artist's work being compromised. Which is more or less what happened in the case of this painting.

Jane Ellen Panton

I first heard about Jane Ellen Panton in Judith Flanders's The Victorian House (2003, p. xl).

Flanders writes, "Jane Ellen Panton (1848-1923), a journalist and early exponent of the new concept of 'interior design', was the daughter of the immensely successful genre painter William Powell Frith.

"Her obituary in The Times said she was a 'witty and outspoken conversationalist with the courage of her opinions, and under a naturally impatient temperament there lay a fund of real kindness'. This, for an obituary in the 1920s, was shatteringly outspoken, and well described the startling rude woman of From Kitchen to Garret, her most successful book (by 1897 it had been through eleven editions).

"At various points she commented on 'some friends of mine who had a [dinner] service with a whole flight of red storks on, flying over each plate, and anything more ugly and incongruous it is difficult to think of'. . . . [She] suggested that women should write down what they wanted for Christmas and birthdays, 'then one is sure of receiving something one requires, and not the endless rubbish that accumulates when well-meaning friends send gifts qua gifts [i.e. gifts for gifts' sake] to be rid themselves of an obligation'.

I gotta be honest, her directness is very refreshing. I think I would have liked her. Does anyone have any more stories about Panton? The ruder, the better.

Rescued by a Lobster

I found this rather improbable tale in the Edinburgh Evening News from February 8th, 1875.

"A journalist met with a strange pet the other day when paying a visit. Whilst he was talking he noticed something moving on the carpet, which was neither dog nor cat. On looking again he saw that it was a fine lobster, dark grey, spotted with red, and thought that it must have escaped from the kitchen.

"The lady of the house smiled, and said, 'I must tell you the history of my pet. Some months ago I bought a lobster and as it was not wanted for my dinner my cook left it in water in the kitchen. I was going to a ball that night, and being ready sat on an easy chair, and fell fast asleep.

"'Suddenly I sprung up from a sharp bite on my foot, and saw the lobster biting it [I assume she means pinching it?]. I started up and ran to the kitchen. No-one was there and a cloth in front of the fire had caught fire. It was extinguished, but I have kept the lobster ever since out of gratitude.'

"It has its basin of cold water, and seems to recognise its mistress, and is so fond of music that it is always drawn towards the piano whenever she plays."

If anyone asks me if I think this story is true, I'm going to look into the middle distance with the hint of a tear in my eye and whisper bravely, "No. But I still have hope."

Daring Abduction of an Heiress

I was going through a volume of The Illustrated Police News (August 29, 1896) and I found this rather ridiculous illustration:

Abduction of an Heiress

The illustration is so absurd, I figured I'd have to blog about it, regardless of what the story was. I mean, look how short her skirt is! Look at the evil glint of his mustache! Look at that woman in the background who appears to be pleased with the abduction, or is too dim to understand what's happening. Look at the sexy pantaloon slap-fight they appear to be having in the inset!

Now, of course, my assumption had been that The Illustrated Police News had sexied up and sensationalised the actual story through the way they chose to illustrate it, as they sometimes tend to do. The article got a lot less fun to read, though, when I realised it actually was as horrifying and Gothic as it appears.

Triggers for abduction, abuse, and rape

The article reads:

"A great sensation has been caused in society circles at Bucharest by the abduction of a young lady belonging to one of the leading families in the capital. The young lady, whose name is Mlle Joanid [sp? illegible in the scan of the article], was recently betrothed to a well-known engineer; but the fact that she had a dowry of £20,000 excited the cupidity of a Frenchman named M. Fourgeon, who conceived the idea of carrying her off, and either persuading her to marry him or else forcing her parents to consent to the match in order to avoid scandal.

"M. Fourgeon's family approved of the scheme, and his sister, who was an intimate friend of Mlle Joanid, undertook to aid him. Mlle Fourgeon accordingly persuaded Mlle Joanid to go for a walk with her in [illegible] near the city, and there the unfortunate young lady was seized by Fourgeon, and in spite of her cries of distress, harried into a carriage and driven off to the Fourgeon estate in [illegible].

"Mlle Joanid's disappearance, of course, attracted attention, and suspicion at once fell upon Fourgeon. The house . . . was surrounded by the police, who forced an entrance, and in one of the rooms found the young lady, nearly mad with terror. Her face was covered with blood, and her clothes had been nearly torn off her back in her desperate struggles to resist her abductor's advances.

"Fourgeon was arrested in an adjoining wood, and along with his sister and other members of his family, has been lodged in prison in Bucharest."

What's horrifying in the way the article is written (in addition to the whole situation) is that it names the victim while simultaneously suggesting that she's no longer 'virtuous' after her attack. It underlines that she's a victim and then shames her for it. The article makes a point of mentioning that a potential outcome could have been her parents forcing her to marry her rapist to avoid scandal. It then goes on to discuss how she was beaten and stripped in an attempt to resist Fourgeon's sexual assault (the implication being that she was unable to fight him off). The article then leaves you hanging, allowing prurient curiosity to fill in the blanks about if she was actually sexually assaulted and what this means for her upcoming marriage and for the rest of her life in society, since the story is now in the public eye.

“Marvellous Freak of Nature”

This story was originally published in the Illustrated Police News, August 29, 1896.

The article begins with: “Marvellous Freak of Nature In An Eight Months’ Old Baby“, so you know it’s going to be really sensitive and professional.

“There died on Monday in St. Louis, says a Daily Mail correspondent, the most extraordinary case of lusus naturae [freak of nature] that has probably ever been known. Herman Bench was eight months old at his death, which was caused, the doctors say, through senile decay.

“Imagine the strange course of nature that in eight months converts the baby into the decrepit man of 80. This individual – it can scarcely be called a child – had a fully developed head, its face had the aspect of maturity, and on it age had placed the lines of care. During its brief existence it grew a beard and manifested other signs of maturity. Lastly, with respect to intelligence, it passed through all the mental stages peculiar to mankind, from prattling babyhood to youthful volubility, and from middle-aged meditativeness to senile garrulity and then to extinction. All this in eight months”.

It’s a miracle they didn’t include an equally sensitive illustration of the baby. Jesus, guys. Seriously. You couldn’t have been a little more sensational?

On a different note, do any readers out there know what medical condition could account for this? It’d be interesting (and refreshing) to have a more clinical perspective.

Victorian Dirt

I found the following information in Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House (2003), which is a really good overview of the Victorian era as a whole.

I think when people think of  Victorian houses, they generally think of places like these:





Now, these places are bright, airy, and sparkling. All the wood gleams, all the fabrics are spotless, candles don’t drip wax anywhere, and there’s loads of space to move.

What we’re thinking of, then, when we think of these places, are the homes of the incredibly wealthy, or of the aristocracy, of the nineteenth century. These homes tend to be older, build in the 1700s (when that stark, airy, Neo-Classical look was the mode of the day). These homes also tended to be on large estates, where there was plenty of space to spread out and have access to fresh, bright, clean air.

This was not true for most Victorian citizens. Even relatively wealthy middle-class Victorians would never have homes like this. Why? Well, firstly because  the bare Georgian style of architecture and home decoration had gone the opposite way: Victorians loved stuff. Houses generally tended to be crammed full of objects and decorations, which was not only an aesthetic choice for the era, but also served as a marker of wealth. The richer you were, the more stuff you could afford. (Okay, the second picture is actually a good example of this Victorian decorating style, but hold on just a minute and we’ll get to the reasons why that’s not a typical Victorian house; rather, it’s the home of an extremely wealthy family). Additionally, having lots and lots of material objects got tied in with all kinds of issues of gender, and women making the home a plush, comfortable domestic space full of doilies and knick-knacks, and shit.

Secondly, most people could not afford houses as spacious as the ones in those photographs. So we’re dealing with more stuff crammed into a smaller space.

Thirdly, and most significantly for this post, the Victorian era was fucking filthy. It’s easier to have a beautiful, gleaming home like the ones you see above if you’re in a spacious place out in the country, away from all the coal dust and smoke and pollution, and you’re wealthy enough to have loads of servants to stay on top of it.

Even the ever-so-respectable Victorian middle classes (who could afford at least one servant) had a hell of a time handling the dust and dirt, the likes of which none of us have probably experienced today. This is in part because of the fires that people had, and the fact that they burned a lot of coal. Additionally, the farther away from the country you lived, the closer you were to factories, which belched out all kinds of nastiness that settled all over the city. “Kitchen ranges and fires for heating throughout the house, together with London’s foggy climate, ensured that London was filthy, inside and out . . . . It was coal that created this menace, and this was formally recognized in 1882, when the Smoke Abatement Exhibition was staged. It displayed fireplaces, stoves and other heating systems that attempted to deal with this nuisance, but for decades to come housekeepers simply had to accept that soot and ‘blacks’ were part of their daily life” (70).

And let’s not forget things like horse droppings, which you had to be careful not to track inside. I know, for example, horse droppings became such a problem in New York in 1900 that it actually partially shut down the city and encouraged a lot of people to transition over to motor cars.

So how did Victorians combat the general film of skank-ass coal nastiness that settled on their daily lives?

“Latches to doors – both street and inner doors – had a small plate or curtain fitted over the keyhole to keep out dirt. Plants were kept on window sills to trap the dust as it flew in; or housewives nailed muslin across the windows to stop the soot, or only opened windows from the top, which diminished the amount that entered. Tablecloths were laid just before a meal, as otherwise dust settled from the fire and they became dingy in a matter of hours” (70-71).

There was also a Victorian practice of putting flowers and clocks under glass jars, as you can see here in this illustration from Alice Through the Looking Glass:


It was far easier to clean a glass jar than it was to tidy the delicate mechanisms on a clock, especially when these objects appeared on mantles, right over a fireplace.

This is actually the origin of spring cleaning, as fireplaces produced so much grime and took up so much of the servants’ time during the winter (in which fireplaces had to be lighted and maintained throughout the whole day). When spring came around and fires were no longer needed to the same extent, servants finally had the time to tackle the mess that fires had produced the previous winter (71).

Servants also had special clothes to wear at certain times, so they didn’t spread the dirt around (or at least this was true of lower-income households with only one or two servants): a maid, first thing in the morning, would polish the cooking range and draw up fires in the main rooms, while the family slept. She would then clean the household’s boots and knives.  After this, she would dust the furniture and sweep the carpets. She would then take all the mats and rugs outside and beat them or shake them out. Front steps would have to be scrubbed, and floors in the front rooms mopped and polished.

After this, a maid would be filthy and would be “expected to change into a clean cotton dress, apron and cap. (This was the lower- and middle-middle-class version of the segregation of duties. The upper classes had one servant for each type of task. In less well-to do houses, separation of function was made clear by the different uniforms worn at different times of day to perform different parts of her job). She then laid the table, and cooked and brought in breakfast” (103-04).

While the family ate, the maid would go upstairs and strip the beds to air out and turn the mattresses. She emptied chamberpots and rinsed them. The upstairs floors were mopped and carpets swept.

“After the family had finished breakfast, the general servant put on a large bedmaking apron, to protect the bed from her clothes, which were dirty once again, this time from the bedroom fires and slops . . . . Then she prepared whichever room was to have a thorough cleaning that day: anything that needed protecting from dust was moved out of the room; the rest was covered, and curtains and valances were pinned up out of the way” (105).

The maid would then be required to be tidy again for lunch and/or dinner, depending on if she waited at table, or just brought up the food.

So the next time you watch a period piece, ask yourself: was it really that clean? Does the family honestly have the resources to employ enough servants to keep things this tidy? And then you can lecture all your friends about how historically inaccurate the film was, and everyone will be super impressed. Or will stop inviting you to go to the movies with them.

Lie Back and Think of England

The following story is from The British Chronicle, September 15, 1790.

“There is in the vicinity of London a woman who has borne to her husband 22 children, all of whom grew up, and several of whom are living. She is . . . a stout woman, and is at present on the eve of lying in [giving birth]. Her husband, it must be remarked is a Welshman. Query – Ought not such a couple to have a premium for their services to the State?

Wow, what a huge difference a couple of hundred years makes in our opinion of people with many children. We’ve gone from thinking that the State should financially reward parents of many children (originating from the belief that British people should have as many kids as possible, in order to go out and colonize the world) to having nothing but disdain for people who have a lot of children.

Of course, our change in attitude is in large part due to the enormous population boom that happened during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (stemming from better food and medical care, meaning that children were more likely to survive to adulthood and have children of their own). Obviously, the rise in population has put a huge strain on space and resources.

The other reason for our change in attitude (at least in the UK) is the general national shame over the UK’s historical imperial and colonial tendencies. So the whole “Let’s populate the earth with British people and bring civilization to the savages!” attitude is not longer a prevalent perspective.

Finally, the rise of birth control and family planning during the late nineteenth century also slowly shifted attitudes, starting with the aristocracy and filtering down to the middle and lower classes. The idea became: if you can now enjoy sex AND be careful not to drain your financial resources by having more children than you can afford, then surely this is a prudent and maybe even virtuous idea. This was especially true in the aristocracy, who in previous decades suffered a great deal of financial strain (leading to its slow collapse over the nineteenth century and slight resurgence at the fin de siecle and Edwardian era), as any sons and daughters they had needed to be awarded allowances befitting their station. If you had a great number of children, this meant huge lump-sum dowries for the girls, and expensive commissions in the army, horses, memberships at clubs, independent houses, and allowances for the boys, as well as education, clothing, and entertainment costs for both.

As family planning became more popular among the upper classes, having a great number of children started to be a marker of low class, a marker which is still evidenced in popular culture today.


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