It was a prosperous time filled with innovation, flourishing culture, and rather peculiar social etiquette. It’s no wonder there are countless TV shows, films, and books that depict the United Kindom during this time. Thankfully, many of these bizarre Victorian habits and trends have since fallen away, but if you’re curious to know all about them, then here’s the tea on the strangest things about the glorious era!
The Water Cure
The medical field in the 19th century was big on hydrotherapy. The trend took hold of the era and seemed to be the answer to everybody's problem, from male pattern baldness to female "hysteria," bathing in hot or cold water could heal you of all your ails.
The wealthy would visit pricey hydrotherapy clinics run by doctors and float around in the hope of being cured. Did it work? We're doubtful, but we're sure some doctors made a pretty penny off the whole operation.
Underneath all those figure-squeezing corsets lay yet another secret - piercings. That's right, bosom piercings were all the rage in Europe during the 1800s, and if you were a fashionable and daring enough woman, you'd probably have a gold ring for each. Take that, punks.
Another belief, probably a little more disappointing, was that the rings would enhance breast growth and correct their shape. As we know, that wouldn't have worked. In any case, those Victorian dames were certainly out there - and no strangers to pain either.
The Modesty Boards
While certain fashions were quite daring back then, modesty was the name of the game - especially for women. Revealing flesh was highly taboo, and that rule went for even the juiciest part of the woman's body - the ankle. To curb all and any of these monstrous fashion transgressions, Victorian society invented the modesty board.
These boards were propped up or nailed to the ground in order to ensure that a woman's ankles were not exposed while seated. Heaven forbid a gentleman caught a glimpse of that sensual little bone. The whole tea room would be aghast in horror, and hot tea would be everywhere.
As much as the 19th century was about the industrial revolution, it was also about strict social codes, some of the strictest in British history, in fact. An example of that was navigating the intricacies of "paying a call," which was essentially visiting your friends and hanging out.
This activity was strictly limited to the afternoons. One had to pay extra attention to social cues as the host wouldn't dare to even politely hint at a goodbye. A subtle yawn? A glazed-over stare? Those were probably indicators that you had to make your hasty exit.
The Victorians and Aliens
The Victorian era was a time of crazy inventions and out-of-this-world discoveries; in fact, they totally believed even then that there simply had to be life on Mars. Thanks to the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, their beliefs were supported as he claimed he saw artificial waterways on Mars through his telescope.
These canals were supposedly signs of intelligent life and advanced systems created by aliens for travel or commerce. The Victorians ate it up, and would many would make pretty big contributions to whacky scientific causes that claimed to be making contact with aliens. In 1886 the first car was created, so you could say they were pretty close.
There's a reason why the English love their beer so much; their water (at least for so many years) was simply undrinkable. Clean and unpolluted water was pretty hard to come by, and beer was considered a safer option, even by pregnant women and children.
Kids after a hard day's work in the mines would love a cup of warm, frothy beer, too. What a time to be alive!
Schooling was not on the list of priorities back then. Kids had to go out and earn money after all, so education wouldn't have been much use for a little chimney sweep. There were some free church-run schools, but most poor families needed all the income they could get.
On the other side of the spectrum, upper-class families sent their sons to prestigious institutions where they would learn Latin and Greek, many of them ultimately attending Oxford University. Luckily the government came to its senses and made education mandatory for all children under 13 years old.
The Tattoo Craze
Piercings, tattoos - one might never guess we're talking about the 1800s. But don't let those prim and proper ladies and gentlemen fool you. Tattoos were rather trendy throughout the Victorian era, especially amongst nobility and royals. Though today Queen Elizabeth and the gang wouldn't be caught dead tatted up, back then, they felt rather differently.
It all started when Queen Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales, visited Jerusalem and spotted the inky trend on his travels. He loved it so much that he decided to get one of his own. On his return, he sparked a trend. If the Prince of Wales had Instagram, he would be one heck of a social media influencer.
The 19th century was filled with decadence, for some. For others, less so. Many families could barely scrape a few pennies together for a meal. With growing industries and a struggling working class, the nation sadly turned to its children for help, sending countless poor kids down coal mines and chimnies.
Their small bodies could easily maneuver around tight spaces, but of course, this was extremely dangerous, and kids would be slogging away in coal and soot saturated air for 12 to 18 hours a day. Thankfully in the year 1891, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed, offering some protection to child laborers, but society had a long way to go.
Unique Face Masks
Beauty trends have been very strange throughout history, and even today, there are some crazy practices out there. Naturally, the 19th century is no exception. Ladies back then would bind slices of raw beef to their faces at night.
It was believed that this kept the wrinkles at bay, preserving their youthful and radiant complexions. We know a little bit better these days, and no preserving was done this way, least of all those raw slices of meat.
Gender Nonconforming Babies
Pink for girls and blue for boys. We've come to learn that that's simply the only way to dress our young children. How else will we know what's what? Though that little social code came a little later, the Victorians found themselves dressing up their babies in frilly dresses.
The richer the family, the more adorned the dress. And with each pretty dress came an equally adorable bonnet. So whether you were John or Jane, you'd be sitting on your mum's lap dressed in the frilliest little white dress money could buy.
It's never easy for the poor, but thankfully today, there are some solid welfare programs and things like housing assistance in place. There wasn't much of that during Queen Victoria's reign. In a Manchester slum named Angel Meadow, struggling Irish immigrants, approximately 30,000 of them would squeeze into a single square mile.
Nasty stories came from that place. Residents (children included) would scavenge for food, even occasionally hunting stray cats. It was a grimy and tough world and seriously badly named.
The Darwin Diet
These days we're all about avocado and matcha powder, but in the 1800s, Charles Darwin, the famous naturalist, and father of the evolution theory were behind the hottest food trend of the era. Hawks, squirrels, owls, and even maggots were all the rage.
Darwin was even a member of the "The Glutton Club," a prestigious naturalist food club in the Cambridge Society that advocated chowing down on these creatures. On outdoorsy expeditions, he would widen his 'natural selection' to iguanas, giant tortoises, armadillos, and once famously, a puma.
Bizarre Street Food
Nowadays, English folks can enjoy a hotdog or pizza from a random street corner vendor, just like most people around the world. But before that was normal, they had their unique little foods that were supposedly super popular -one of those street delicacies was sheep's feet, AKA 'trotters.'
Vendors would prepare these sheep's feet by first skinning and parboiling them (yum) and sell them to hungry workers in the street who would then suck the meat and fat off the bones (double yum.)
How did people care for their teeth back in the Victorian age? Toothpaste hadn't been invented yet! Well, thankfully, the French leaders in personal hygiene invented “dentifrice,” which is really just toothpaste in French. Brits during the era just made their own home-made versions.
What was it, you might ask? The recipe was essentially a mixture of charcoal and honey. Activated charcoal is actually used to whiten teeth nowadays anyway, so perhaps they weren't totally off. Though, we're not so sure about the honey part.
The Widow of Windsor
When Queen Victoria's husband Albert tragically passed, the ruler of England mourned for decades. The death was hard on the queen, who resigned herself to total seclusion for the rest of her life. She refused all public appearances and wore black for 40 years until her death.
She even earned herself the nickname "the window of Windsor." At some point, rumors even began to swirl, saying that she had gone completely mad. For many years she was a far cry from the queen that people remembered.
If you were a high society woman during the Victorian era, you simply did not wear makeup. Only a lady of the night would wear makeup; in fact, lipstick was likened to witchcraft in that it had a 'bewitching' effect on men.
Cultured women would simply pinch their cheeks or throw on a dash of rouge for some color, and that was only if they were feeling a little risqué
As we've seen, the Industrial Revolution saw some kooky contraptions and inventions. During the 19th century, electrotherapy or shock therapy was widely used throughout the UK and was used to treat a myriad of ailments from gout and liver problems to arthritis.
The "advanced technology" attempted to shock all the bad out of the patient's system. While shock therapy is used even today in some very specific cases, we're guessing back then it wasn't quite as subtle and certainly not helpful for liver problems.
Physical beauty was very important to high society folks in the Victorian era. And, much like today, those with the most money and time put a lot of effort into self-care. Upper-class men would partake in bodybuilding, and women exercised on what was then considered some high-tech equipment.
There were also countless fad diets and workout trends and almost 200 gyms across Europe at the time, which now sounds like nothing, yes, but back then, it was truly for the very elite.
The Era of Inventions
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, Guglielmo Marconi created the radio in 1895. There was also the television, the train, the camera, the vacuum, and the most precious of all inventions - the toilet.
It was a time of industrial ingenuity, and England was becoming totally transformed. More and more people left the countryside to come to the cities, England was on fire.
The Business of Mourning
Queen Victoria wasn't the only woman in England who did some serious mourning. Grief was quite a business back in Victorian England, and one didn't simply just shed a few tears and move on. Women saved their tears in elaborate jewelry boxes or bottles that were bejeweled with black stones.
The idea that no one would cry for you after passing on was unthinkable. Men who died bachelors would even go so far as to arrange professional wailers would who weep at their gravestones.
Mummies Were Trending
Obsessions with Pharaohs, mummies, pyramids, and all things Egypt was the major trend in archaeology and culture during the early 1900s. Victorians were simply obsessed with the newfound artifacts and attended exhibitions and lectures in droves. It was dubbed "Egyptomania."
The interest resurfaced all around Europe due to Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign. In fact, the big Hollywood hit "The Mummy" wasn't set too long after that.
If you haven't gotten the picture yet, Victorians were a freaky bunch, and in addition to mummy fetishes and alien fascination, they also loved the supernatural. The 1800s spawned endless tales of ghosts and spirits. Was it due to photographic tricks and illusions on the newly invented camera? Was it old-world superstition? Or was it simply the fact that rich Victorians were a little bored?
Countless Lords and Ladies would get hypnotized for kicks or go to a séance to contact an old relative or mysterious spirit believed to be floating in the unseen world. Palm readers were also popular and made quite a bit of money off some socialites.
When it came to home decor, every Victorian proudly displayed their grand “cabinet of curiosities.” This was a cabinet filled with geological, archeological, or zoological findings from around the world.
These objects could include antique weapons, seashells, bones, and jewelry. Since it was a real trend, many of these findings were actually fake, but who really knew the difference?
Hysterical Women Everywhere
During the 19th century and before that, and a little after that too, countless women were plagued with a mysterious illness called Hysteria. Women who were sad, women who spoke up, angry, anxious, unsatisfied, you name it, Hysteria was the reason behind it all.
Physicians struggled to come up with a cure, and sadly, women were cast off into institutions where they would have to spend the rest of their days being misunderstood.
Fun in the Parlor
Victorians loved their parlor games. Many games have stuck around, such as charades, musical chairs, cards, and checkers, but some more extreme games stayed in the past. One such example of this was a game called “Snapdragon.”
The object of this game was to light a bowl of raisins on fire and grab as many as you could and eat them. Those folks knew how to party!
Smoggy Foggy London
With more and more factories popping up all over town, smog increased big time. And since it was all very new, no one quite figured out regulations. Coal pollution saturated the air creating a thick cloud of smoggy air that hung over the city. That wasn't helped by the moisture of the Thames river.
If you were just out and about the city, you would inevitably return home with soot all over your skin and clothes. That does not sound pleasant at all.
Taxidermy was another fun hobby of Victorians. Having a home filled with dead stuffed animals was great, but what would you do with all your furry friends who just lay there all still all day long? Dress them up like dolls and have imaginary tea parties, of course!
Taxidermist and artist Walter Potter famously created scenes of little rabbit school-boys, tea-sipping kittens, and cigar smoking squirrels, all using real stuffed animals and miniature models of cups, cigars, and furniture. It truly was a craze.
The Class Gap
For many years leading up to the industrial revolution, the United Kindom was broken up into three main classes: the upper class, the middle class, and the working class. As the nation's wealth grew, naturally, so did the people.
Soon after, many middle-class people found themselves getting richer and richer, catching up with the upper class; you didn't need to be from a line of noblemen to have money; you just had to have a good business.
Not an Ideal Time to Get Sick
People were probably trying their damnedest to stay healthy back then as medical help wasn't in its ripest form just yet. Tuberculosis was the leading cause of death during the era, and treatment took place in workhouses, not even hospitals.
If you were 'fortunate' to make it to the hospital, it was probably due to surgery. And even then, you would have to undergo the knife without anesthesia or painkillers. Can you think of anything worse?
Dim lit Dinners
It was believed that digestion was aided by dining in the dark, so many families had dining rooms built in the basement, close to the kitchen. It's no wonder that English cuisine isn't the most aesthetically pleasing. They'd barely seen their food all those years.
Sometime later, dining rooms were moved to the first floor, but of course, at least based on all the books and films, servants would have their meals in the basement.
The Freak Show Phenomena
Fueled by the fascination for the horrific and the abnormal, another popular form of entertainment was the freak show. Freakish showmen or "circus freaks" with all kinds of afflictions would tour London and rural towns entertaining people all over the country.
The American icon P.T. Barnum is known as the most successful showman of his time. Thankfully we have none of that today!
Straight-laced Victorians were not a casual bunch. So bloomers were pretty radical. These were designed to cover the whole leg, even when sitting, but some women's rights activists chose to wear them as actual pants, paired with a shorter dress.
Though they were huge and puffy, it probably was a more comfortable option. While today bloomers look quite ridiculous, back then, they were pretty radical. It was 19th century England after all.
The famous Victorian "air diet" was incredibly popular amongst teens and young women back then. As you can imagine, this diet was essentially just fasting, sometimes not even drinking water, because, of course, what respectable lady would ever dare to enjoy a meal?
Mollie Fancher was one of many famous "fasting girls" during the Victorian era. She claimed that she had gone without food for 14 years. Some of these girls, Fancher included, claimed that they had special magical powers. Somehow, the public gobbled it up.
No Kids Allowed
We've all heard the saying, "children should be seen and not heard." We'll give you a guess as to which era originated from. You got it. Upper-class Victorian toddlers didn't have much contact with their parents and were mostly raised by nannies.
Kids were raised with rigid rules and had to always be on the best behavior, well mannered, and most importantly, quiet. Thankfully they soon wised up about that.
The Water Closet
It was only by the year 1870 that most wealthy families had indoor water closets in their homes. The biggest water closet attraction being the toilet. Pre-industrial revolution, anything bathroom-related involved servants and buckets.
Sounds pretty impractical if you ask us, and poor servants! It explains why most of the time, they just took sponge baths and covered up any odors with a lot of perfume.
Medicine and science are in a constant state of trial and error; there's a reason why we've come so far. This is why, in 1875, one approach for preventing pneumonia was to cover yourself in sheets of newspaper.
This would give the person a warm and comfortable night’s sleep and keep them from getting sick. Cold water was also thought to be the reason behind many illnesses. Thankfully we've come a long way.
The Poor River Thames
It took England and really the rest of Europe many years to figure out sanitation. Unsanitary practices were a major cause of diseases. The Thames River, for example, was filthy, and the whole of London's waste was getting dumped into the river on a daily basis.
People were drinking it unware and getting sick with dysentery, cholera, and typhoid. The year 1860 was not a good time for the river. Thankfully not long before that, bottled mineral water had hit the shelves and was growing in popularity.
The Fainting Epidemic
Women wore corsets often made from whalebone, or sometimes even steel. The strong material helped women get those teeny tiny waists that seemed to be all the rage back then. The pressure around their torsos would often cause women to faint! Women were just fainting all over England.
It seemed to be a mystery at first. Were Victorian women just easily overwhelmed? No, they simply could not breathe, and the oxygen was barely reaching their heads!
A Dash of Arsenic
During the 19th century, the highly poisonous arsenic was not considered a deadly toxin but rather a beauty product. Women used it in tiny doses as an age-fighting cosmetic. We suppose one woman applied a little too much to her cheeks one evening, and it did not go too well.
Perhaps doctors were too invested in hydro and shock therapy to realize the true effects of arsenic. Like we've said, this era was all about trial and error.
Tragic Family Portraits
In the days of bad healthcare and low life-expectancy, many parents found themselves mourning their children too soon. This was one of the greatest tragedies of the 19th century, and thankfully things improved down the line, but their methods for keeping memories were a little strange.
Families would dress up their deceased family members (often children) and take photographs with them. Strange, but it really was the only way some families could remember their loved ones.
Not the Spiciest Queen
Queen Victoria famously despised spicy food, but when you're the leader of so many colonies, some palate adjustments must be made, at least for the sake of diplomacy. As the Empress of India and the leader of the British Empire, she ensured that curry always be kept available just in case.
Guests from the region were often disappointed as the dishes were really just a mix of already cooked ingredients with curry powder sprinkled over. To all those self-proclaimed chefs out there, no, that's not quite the right way to prepare curry.
The Grave Robbing Career
Scientists, doctors, and especially students of the field had to learn their biology on real human bodies, but where would they get all these bodies? Perhaps some science-enthusiasts out there would kindly donate theirs after passing, but there were simply not enough.
The solution? Professional grave robbers would sneak into the night and dig out bodies in the town's graveyards. Experts in the medical field paid good money for that, so it seemed like a decent profession. If you had a low gag reflex, that is.
Divorce was illegal in England until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, but that didn't mean people weren't having marriage issues and splitting up before that, only they did things a little differently. Naturally, the woman's feelings were not much of a concern.
If a man was unhappy with his woman, he could simply take her to the market and sell her to the highest bidder. Sounds all quite tragic, doesn't it? The sale itself was also quite the spectacle and often be entertaining for the crowds.
Lethal Food Additives
MSG and food coloring sounds like nothing compared to these Victorian food additives. Chalk and alum were occasionally added to the dough in order to make bread whiter; even things like pipeclay, plaster of Paris, or sawdust were added to the mix.
Brewers were known to add strychnine - a toxic substance used for pesticides to their beer if they were low on hops. Not to mention lead- which was simply everywhere. Red lead was even used to color Gloucester cheese, and copper sulfates were used in preserving fruit, jams, and wine. Yikes.
The United Kingdom was overwhelmed with orphans at the time. According to writer and historian Sarah Wise (via Spitalfields Life), 30,000 children were living on the London streets in 1869. Moneyed philanthropists set up some schools to teach the kids practical skills, but it was simply too hard to teach and 'employ' all of these children.
One woman named Annie Parlane MacPherson started an emigration program. She founded the Home Children scheme, sending poor and orphaned children to other colonies of the British Empire. Thousands upon thousands of these kids were sent to farms or homes around the world to be laborers or domestic servants.
Curly hair was all the rage in the 1800s, and the curling iron was in its infancy; in fact, it was basically a pair of tongs that needed to be heated in a fire. The iron would be so incredibly firey hot that the hair would just burn off. Bald patches were an issue for many Victorian women.
Astonishingly, women thought teas and various remedies were the answers to their bald spots - and not simply not burning off their hair. Some even bathed in ammonia, believing it would stimulate growth. Gosh, poor women!
Nose jobs are not a modern-day phenomenon. Long before plastic surgeries, there were companies that manufactured “nose shapers” or “nose machines.” These metal contraptions were strapped on and squeezed the soft cartilage 'shrinking' or straightening the nose.
Dr. Sid, a Victorian-era surgeon from Paris, created the device and reported that it had successfully squeezed the nose of a 15-year-old patient’s large nose for three months until she was satisfied with the results.
The First Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree was actually more of a German tradition and dates back to the 1600s. It was only in 1840 that the English population embraced it, and that was all thanks to Albert, Queen Victoria's German hubby. Albert brought the iconic tree to Windsor castle and had it lavishly decorated; they were royals, after all!
More festive customs originated during the Victorian era, including the exchange of Christmas cards, gifts, and even Christmas crackers. The story behind Christmas crackers, legend has it, was invented by a London sweet maker named Tom Smith, who sat by the fire one evening, inspired by the crackles and sparks of the flame.