When people hear the word, “Victorian”, a myriad of images and thoughts often come to mind: quaint, old-fashioned, gaslights, lace, crinoline, velvet, severe husbands and prudish wives.
Oh, and let’s not forget: “stodgy”.
For anyone who has studied the 19th century- the image of Victorians as stodgy is laughable.
Brilliant minds invented the steam locomotive, batteries, photography, Coca-Cola, soda fountain, stethoscope, microphone, typewriter, braille printing, sewing machine, telegraph, Morse code, bicycles, facsimile, pasteurisation, antiseptics, washing machines, elevators, telephone, phonographs, motorcyles, mechanical cash registers, and the first motion pictures.
Intellectual debates sprung from Darwin’s, “On the Origin of Species”. The Suffrage Movement and Abolitionism began. Health movements by Sylvester Graham and J.H. Kellog advocated vegeterianism. Thomas Young and Jean Francois Champollion’s deciphering of The Rosetta Stone issued in Egyptology. New ideas sprang up: Spiritualism, Free Love, American Transcendentalism, and Theosophy.
The Victorians were dazzled by the world around them. Poor and rich alike visited cabinets of curiosities to view collections pertaining to natural history, archeology, arts and antiquities. These encyclopedic collections included fossils, plants, sealife specimens, to human skulls and torture devices, to fabricated wonders such as feejee mermaids and shrunken heads.
But what did they do for entertainment when they weren’t studying shrunken heads?
When they weren’t inventing amusement parks and riding the first rollercoasters- they enjoyed magic lantern shows, waxwork shows, and freak shows. Hypnotists, fortune tellers, acrobats, magicians, and pantomimes.
Daredevils such as Blondin (Jean Francois Gravelet), performed stunts which have never been equalled. In June 1859, Blondin, armed with only a balancing pole, walked across Niagra Falls from the American side to Canada on a two-inch rope. Two weeks later he performed the stunt walking backwards and returned pushing a wheelbarrow. He would later repeat the stunt on stilts, blindfolded, and riding a bicycle. Twenty thousand spectators watched Selina Young (the “female Blondin”) complete a daring highrope walk across the Thames from Battersea Bridge to the Cremorne Gardens. Tragically, in 1862, she was left permanently disabled after a fall.
Those stodgy Victorians devoured Sensation novels of murder and sex by William Black, Mary Braddon, Ellen Price, and the unforgettable Wilkie Collins. His Woman in White inspired perfume, cloaks, bonnets, and waltzes.
Prudes? Statistics regarding the number of babies born very, very quickly after marriage indicate people were as lusty as ever in the 19th century. A group of moralists (mostly belonging to the middle class) did wish to portray a false image of perfection. (or what they deemed to be perfection) But what polite society discussed in public and what went on in the privacy of peoples’ homes was quite different. Wives may have been advised to “lie back and think of England” during sex- but it is comical to suppose they actually did.
All the same -it is too easy to romanticize the past. For all its many wonders, the 19th century was rife with poverty and crime. Sanitation was almost non-existant in many places. City streets were strewn with manure and garbage. Without modern conveniences- cooking, cleaning, and laundry were laborous, backbreaking ordeals. It is not surprising the Victorians sought pleasure wherever they could.
Who wouldn’t want to watch Blondin sit down on that two-inch rope in the middle of Niagra Falls and cook an omelette with a portable stove he’d secured to his back?
Blondin walking across Niagra Falls on June 30, 1859