1. Underwear Let’s face it: this is why you’re here. You should be curious about Victorian underthings, because they were truly weird. 19th-century clothing was so complicated, a lady typically couldn’t dress herself. Before the mid-1800s, her innermost layer was a “shift,” or “chemise,” basically a shin-length shirt. “Drawers” (pantaloons being the American version) became popular in the mid-1800s once Victorian ladies understood the hazards of a mishap while wearing a crinoline, a cage-shaped structure to give the gown its shape. Turn a bell upside down and you can see its ringer, right? Now you get it. And while the mere glimpse of an ankle was scandalous, the topmost layer of the petticoat was typically made of expensive fabric and embroidered, meaning it was meant to be seen when the gown lifted.
Count the layers: stockings and garters, shift, lace-up corset, crinoline, camisole (undershirt protecting the gown from perspiration stains), petticoats over the crinoline (one or several layers depending on desired shape of gown), and finally the gown. Not to mention a lady felt practically naked without her gloves and hat.
Men had it much easier: drawers (drawstring knee-length shorts), or long underwear in the winter, worn beneath trousers. A long-sleeved shirt went under the vest and coat. Linen was the choice of the distinguished gentleman, and the thinner the fabric, the dandier he was.
2. Recycling Go ahead and pat yourself on the back for sorting your paper, glass, and aluminum into crates, but your Victorian ancestors put your recycling efforts to shame. Beginning with the wealthy who passed last season’s fashions on to their servants, clothes would be sold and resold until not ending in a rag-and-bone shop, but a paper factory. Tea leaves, fat drippings from the kitchen, coal ashes, oyster shells, cigar butts, and even household dust (sold to brick makers) were scavenged and reused. Not impressed yet? Did you know urine could be collected and sold to a tanner who used it to cure leather? The Victorians were a thrifty bunch, but for many, poverty made their inventiveness a necessity.
3. Medical Care The least we can say for the Victorian-era physician? He was better than his great-grandfather who believed in blood-letting and “evil humours.” Still, you wouldn’t want his scalpel anywhere near you. Anesthesia was typically a good single malt if you were lucky, or a leather strap if you weren’t. The Queen preferred chloroform, but the general public was wary of its use.
The Victorian doctor was notorious for hiring “body snatchers” to steal cadavers for dissection and surgical practice, and other than an apprenticeship or perhaps some courses at university, that was the best training he could hope for. So-called medical texts were wildly inaccurate and outdated.
Ailments from a headache to pneumonia to heart palpitations were often treated with laudanum or alcohol-laced quack medicines. While he was so good at amputations he could have your leg off in 30 seconds, a doctor delivering a baby wouldn’t look under the sheet since it was thought improper, so complications often meant a death sentence. And worse, since microbiology wasn’t widely accepted until the late 1800s, the same germ-ignorant surgeon would go from a cholera victim autopsy to a childbirth wearing the same blood-soaked apron and without washing his hands. (And they wondered why so many died of infections.) Yes, I know you probably just bear-hugged your doctor.
4. Divorce Dissolving a marriage, no matter how disastrous, literally took an act of congress and cost over 1,500 pounds in court expenses. That’s the yearly wages of 38 governesses, or the modern equivalent of roughly $133,000, for perspective. Before 1857, 90 parliamentary divorces were granted to men, and only 4 to women. Why? When a woman married, her husband became the legal owner of all her property, as well as her person. This meant she didn’t have access to her money, and worse, she couldn’t sue on grounds of adultery or abuse. A disgruntled husband could sue for divorce citing infidelity, but there were legal barriers to remarrying, as well as the risk of his children being declared illegitimate.
Without the modern advent of the drive-thru, no-contest divorce, most people didn’t bother. Rural types invented a do-it-yourself divorce, as portrayed in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, in which a cantankerous drunkard auctions off his wife and baby for 5 guineas. That’s about $530 to you. Hardy didn’t make this up—county law records in England mention wife-selling (with and without the sanction of local magistrates) into the early 20th century. Sometimes the missus got an upgrade to a local merchant or even gentry, so not every transaction was mutually opposed. Now don’t go getting ideas…
5. Bathing Most Victorians made do with a wash basin and rag to clean their arms, neck, and feet, but never mind the rest. You could stand downwind, if you did mind. The rural poor might brave the frosty temperatures of a stream, or else haul water in buckets from the well or pump to a copper tub in the kitchen or scullery. Heating water over the fire was such a hassle, several people took turns with the wash water every Saturday. A hefty tax on soap prevented most in the lower classes from using it. The wealthy had servants who would not only haul water buckets up the stairs to the bathtub (indoor plumbing was typically on the ground floor only), but would also undress, wash, dry, and dress them.
Contraptions predating the modern shower made their way into affluent households by mid-century, but their effectiveness was unreliable (prone to dispense both scalding or freezing water in turn) or riddled with design flaws, such as a pull string which couldn’t be reached by the bather.
Incidentally, ladies never cut their hair and seldom washed it, partly because of the ordeal. They were fastidious about brushing their long, long tresses to redistribute the oils on the scalp to the ends, and kept it styled in braids or chignons. Whatever their station, Victorians cared about keeping their clothes clean, pressed and starched, but weren’t as fastidious about keeping their persons tidy. When all else failed, perfumes and colognes saved the day. Or not.
By the way, you have out-of-control Taxes in common with the penny-pinched Victorian. You already know about the tax on soap, but citizens lamented the tax burden on candles (beeswax at triple the rate of the smelly, smoky tallow), male household servants, windows, beer, malt, carriages, corn, horses, dogs, salt, sugar, raisins, tea, coffee, tobacco, playing cards, timber, coal, coal, silk, hats, paper, and even advertisements and coats of arms. Unsurprisingly, there were also taxes on land, income, and law practice. The cost of paying taxes added up for Victorians of every class; many resorted to hand making as many items as possible. It just goes to prove that saying about “death and taxes…”
Where did I find all this info? For more about Victorians, check out: