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Less than romantic

The real daily life of the Victorians

Created date

December 22nd, 2014
book: How to Be a Victorian
book: How to Be a Victorian

There is a certain romance to the Victorian era (1837-1901) created by today’s pop culture interpretation of the time—debonair men dressed in coat-tailed suits and top hats, women with elegant hairstyles in ornate, billowy gowns. Even the simple, ambient details—flickering gas lamps, foggy cobblestone streets, and horse-drawn barouches—impart a mysterious, Gothic quality that enthralls us.

But as historian Ruth Goodman illustrates in her book How to Be a Victorian (Norton, 2013), 1800s living was none too glamorous. 

Goodman went to great lengths to understand the minutiae of daily Victorian life, spending an entire year in her ancestors’ shoes. She adopted 19th-century hygienic practices, prepared and ate authentic meals, and wore period clothing.

Imagine, for a moment, no running water, no central heat, no electricity, and you’ll begin to grasp what it was like for Goodman and for Victorians. A handful of brief vignettes might give you some idea.

Washing up

When audiences watch film adaptations of books by Victorian authors like Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens, they rarely encounter the small yet essential facets of nineteenth-century domesticity—activities as run of the mill as washing up in the morning.

It’s nothing for us to get out of bed and hop into a hot shower. For Victorians, there was no such luxury.

According to Goodman, their main resource was a rag and a bowl of water to perform what they called the “morning ablutions.” This entailed standing at a washbasin and cleaning those parts of your body that were prone to dirt and odor—namely the face, underarms, and private areas.

Soap may or may not have been part of the process. 

If and when a person used it, it was made of animal fats and carried the sharp, sterile smell of carbolic acid, a standard antibacterial agent at the time. By the late 1800s, more expensive rose- and lavender-scented soaps hit the market.

And believe it or not, Victorians also brushed their teeth, but this too was a far cry from what we have today. Nineteenth-century toothbrushes consisted of bone or wooden handles and horsehair bristles, while the paste was little more than abrasive polish mixed with carbolic acid.

Food and nutrition

Diets of the period varied by social class; however, something that all Victorians shared to some degree was a nearly constant, gnawing hunger. As Goodman notes, malnutrition was rampant, and its effects indelible.

A study of male skeletons from 1860s London found that the average height was 5 feet 5 ½ inches, 3 ½ inches shorter than twenty-first-century male Londoners. 

Without the convenience of ready-made frozen foods, meals took longer to prepare and, in the winter months, contained few if any vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables. Deficiency-related maladies such as scurvy (vitamin C) and rickets (vitamin D) were common.

When Victorians did eat, it was a variety of typically starchy dishes. Breakfast ranged from cakes and breads to porridge, eggs, sausage, and pancakes. 

The midday lunch consisted of a helping of bacon or ham along with a pudding, while the evening meal was ordinarily some kind of roasted meat and potatoes.

Family medicine

Sickness was a deadly serious concern in the nineteenth century. Thanks to improved hygiene, sewage systems, and vaccinations, diseases like measles, diphtheria, cholera, and typhoid are rarely if ever seen today. 

They were a constant menace to the Victorians, and there was little that the medical profession could do to combat them. Generally, the sick stayed at home, where women often assumed the mantle of physician.

Their arsenal of treatments comprised an archaic and largely ineffective potpourri of homemade remedies, “snakeoil” elixirs, and narcotics. These could range from beef tea and barley water to fight dehydration to laudanum and other opiates to kill pain.

Use of the latter, according to Goodman, frequently resulted in crippling addiction and/or death. Not until the end of the century would medicine begin to resemble the science that we know now.

In the end, Goodman’s research shows nineteenth-century society in its most intimate form. To our modern sensibilities, life in the 1800s seems downright primitive, but for the Victorians, it was reality.

These glimpses of mundane rituals add dimension to a bygone era and an attractive luster to the comforts of our own.