30 Eerie Victorian Traditions We Can't Believe Existed
By Sophia Maddox | July 11, 2023
The Victorian era was a time of contrarian ideals: They covered themselves completely but fetishized the female figure, they were obsessed with cleanliness but practically lived in a sewer, and they prized marriage and family above all things but sold their wives at auction. It's possible that the Victorians couldn't see the forest for the trees, but maybe they were just a generation full of weirdos.
Victorians liked their women modest, or maybe they were so sex-obsessed that any exposed flesh would drive them insane. Either way, one way the people of Victorian England kept their gals as pure as the driven snow was with a "modesty panel," a simple slab of wood nailed or propped up close to a desk or other structure that revealed a woman's ankles and kept adventurous creeps from looking up their skirts.
Victorian ladies and even skincare-minded gentlemen kept their faces pillowy soft with face masks, but not the mud and seaweed treatments of today. Victorians used raw beef or veal to stamp out acne, rosacea, and dry skin.
Victorians loved their parlor games, even more so when they could legit kill you. One such game was called "snap dragon" and involved pouring raisins into a bowl, soaking them in rum, and setting them on fire before scrambling to remove as many raisins as possible and chomp them down while they were still aflame. Why? You know. Victorians.
Dining In The Dark
How do you properly digest your food? Do you chew it up until it's reached the appropriate texture to easily swallow? Do you make sure to get enough roughage? How about eating in the dark? Victorians believed that digestion could best be achieved by sitting in the dark, so they built their dining rooms in the basement, the perfect place for a blind dinner.
Arsenic For All
Victorians were just as obsessed with their bodies as we are, if not more dangerously. Many women used arsenic, the carcinogenic poison, to fight wrinkles, and men swallowed arsenic tablets as a kind of pre-Pfizer Viagra. It's unclear if arsenic can actually be used to turn compasses to true north, but it doesn't seem advisable to try it.
Victorian Death Photography
In Victorian times, photography was still a novelty, so Victorians took any excuse to immortalize themselves, especially if they'd just proven very mortal. It wasn't uncommon to take pictures with a recently deceased loved one, especially children, and as weird as the photos are, there's also something kind of touching about having a last selfie moment with someone lost too soon.
We all know that corsets were a thing in the Victorian era, but they were much more extreme than most people think. Many women cinched themselves down until they had tiny "wasp waists" with super snug corsets that didn't just rearrange your insides, they made it impossible to breathe.
One of the most lucrative side hustles of the Victorian era was grave robbing, and the fresher the corpse, the better. Medical students needed cadavers to study, so a black market of corpses arose, enriching adventurous thieves and angering families of the dearly departed.
Put A Bird On It
Victorians loved nature, so feathered hats and dresses were all the rage. Some of the more adventurous ladies even attached entire bird corpses to their outfits. It was such a popular trend that it almost sent 67 species of bird to the extinction list.
The Mummy Craze
The 19th century was a fertile age of exploration, and one of the most impressive discoveries were ancient mummies that the people of Victorian England brought home from Egyptian vacations. They invited all their friends over for unwrapping parties, which tended to be rather grim spectacles that nevertheless delighted the morbid weirdos. At one notable gathering for the unwrapping of Neskhons, the second wife of Theban High Priest Pinodjem II was placed in a contraption that made her appear to dance. The demand for mummies to take home was so high that Egyptians started transporting them from less-visited ruins to areas that got more traffic.
Victorian Garden Hermits
The next time someone shows off their garden to you, make sure to ask where they keep their hermit. In the Victorian era, wealthy families hired people to don full hermit garb, complete with robes, long hair, beards, and hermit glasses, and act as ornamental garden hermits on their land. The biggest rule of all? No speaking to anyone on the property. Ah, the joys of wealth.
Not only did Victorian women want to look like wasps, they wanted to decorate their bodies with insects. They wore live beetles as jewelry and attached dead butterflies to their gowns, pushing many insects to the brink of extinction.
Ring My Bell
In an era when death was at the forefront of everyday life, Victorians were spooked about the possibility of being buried alive. To make sure no one was interred before their time, Victorians designed "safety coffins" outfitted with bells the non-deceased could ring in the case of accidental burial. This often resulted in false alarm, as corpses swelled from decomposition could trigger the bells.
Take My Wife, Please
Attaining a divorce in the early 1900s was an expensive undertaking, so those who couldn't afford the legal fees sometimes sold their wives to the highest bidder. It was often done with the full consent of the wife, who was usually bought by her family or a new lover.
Railroads were an innovation that changed travel, business, and apparently, the mental health field. Most Victorians were in favor of a more industrious future, but some worried that darting across the country at high speeds could turn a person mad. The era was littered with stories of men losing their minds thanks to the sounds and motions of trains, fights breaking out, and institutionalized patients hopping trains to freedom and even more madness.
If you've checked out a photo from the Victorian era recently, you've no doubt noticed that the people of the day wore a lot of black. They may have been obsessed with death and sex, but they weren't proto-goths—they just didn't want to wash their clothes. At the time, London was plagued with pollution from the coal industry, meaning that anyone wearing white would soon be wearing gray after a short walk in the sooty air. Wearing darker clothing meant that no one noticed how dirty you were.
Today, the standard "wyd?" text is the only requirement to arrange an impromptu hangout, but that wasn't the case for Victorians. Ladies were expected to be ready to host visitors from three to six in the afternoon, with any time after reserved for very close friends and relatives, and anyone else who showed up outside those times was considered a serious jerk.
Between 1850 and 1870, women layered several intricate skirts over a wooden hoop in what was known as the "crinoline period," but those who took part in the trend did so at their own risk. The wide outfits kept the wearer from walking through doors, and the dresses frequently caught on fire when the wearers inevitably brushed up against a candle.
The Queen Victorian herself took that Victorian hospitality to a whole new level. She ordered her cooks to prepare curry every day, even though she hated all spicy foods. Why? In case a "visiting oriental" stopped by. Such benevolence.
Health-conscious Victorians made sure to take care of their teeth with a mixture of charcoal and ... honey. Charcoal is believed to have some whitening abilities, but honey just rots your teeth, so it's doubtful those misguided Victorians saw any beneficial dental effects.
We Wish You A Morbid Christmas
Christmas cards in the Victorian era weren't your standard "awkwardly posed family smiling in front of a fake tree." They featured anthropomorphic food, dead animals, and scenes of pure violence, all alongside festive greetings to one's friends and neighbors. At a time when winter could earnestly mean death for any of your loved ones, some gallows humor was necessary.
Victorian Body Modification
Despite their prim reputation, the Victorians were one of the first generations of Westerners to embrace tattoos and piercings. Many women were heavily pierced, mostly likely because they enjoyed the way it felt, and people from all walks of Victorian life got inked with the initials of their loved ones or nautical symbols.
Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment
In the 19th century, Victorians thought "electrotherapy" could fix everything from gout to muscle problems. All you had to do was pay your local electrotherapist, who shocked the problem area, but all it did was leave many people with unsightly scars.
The Abode Of Love
In 1846, a free love cult founded by former clergyman Henry Prince came to prominence. The cult mostly brought in members of the wealthy class before getting them to "donate" their savings so he could build "The Abode of Love," which was supposed to be a collection of cottages surrounded by a 12-foot wall called Agapemone, but after Prince convinced five unmarried sisters to give him most of the money for the Abode, he moved into a 16-bedroom house while his followers lived in destitution. Prince died in 1889, and John Hugh Smyth-Piggot took over the cult before declaring himself the second coming of Christ. He died in 1927, but the cult lasted until 1956.
The Victorian era ushered in the tail end of "corpse medicine," the practice of ingesting different parts of the human body to cure various ailments. By the 19th century, most doctors had moved away from this barbarous practice, but medical texts and cookbooks that explained how to best prepare a body part suggest that it was far from, well, dead. To get fresh "supplies," people often went to an executioner rather than a pharmacist.
During the 19th century, it wasn't out of the ordinary to use chalk or alum as an additive in dough to make bread whiter. Some bakers even used clay, plaster of Paris, or sawdust to fill out their recipes. Meanwhile, strychnine made its way into beer, and pretty much everything contained some degree of lead. Copper sulfates bolstered fruit, jam, and wine, mercury was a regular ingredient in candy, and many ice cream vendors in London used water and chalk in their sweet desserts. How did anyone survive?
Performance-enhancing drugs date back a lot further than Jose Canseco. Not only did athletes juice up to compete, they did so for the lamest competitions, specifically pedestrianism, otherwise known as long-distance walking. These walkers covered hundreds of miles over the course of a few days, all while chewing coca leaves to stave off fatigue and sipping "tonics" that included strychnine as a main ingredient. Sometimes, they even injected the stuff to keep them going, even as their respiratory systems shut down.
For as long as humans have been living on land, we've loved going to the beach. In the Victorian era, the demands of modesty on women were so great that they rented bathing machines, which looked like covered wagons that drove them into the water, just to relax in the placid English waves without anyone seeing them in their bathing suits.
Four Penny Coffins
If you were living on the street and needed a safe place to sleep, you could rent a coffin-shaped bed for just four pennies from the Salvation Army for the evening. The beds weren't comfortable, and they were definitely coffins, but they kept you alive for another day, so that's something.
The Smell Of Victorian London
The worst and weirdest thing about Victorian London was that it smelled horrible. There was raw sewage in the River Thames, people used the alleys like their own private bathrooms, and the air was thick with coal. In 1858, a heat wave took the stink of brown River Thames across London, finally convincing the government to look into cleaning up the city.