27 Bizarre Facts About The Victorian Era That You Didn’t Learn In School

Published November 24, 2020
Updated January 21, 2024

From wife selling to mummy unwrapping, these Victorian era facts will make you so glad you live in the 21st century.

Victorian Era Waist
Arsenic Complexion Wafers
Victorian Era Death Photo
Bathing Machines
27 Bizarre Facts About The Victorian Era That You Didn’t Learn In School
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The Victorian period was all about contradictions. Victorians cheered for the railroad boom but fretted about railway madness. They surrounded themselves with death by adorning their outfits with bird corpses but tried to escape their own mortality with "safety coffins."

Men auctioned off their wives at the market one day and then insisted that women preserve their modesty at the beach by hiding in "bathing machines" on the next day. Makeup was denounced as tacky but arsenic skincare products were advertised as "perfectly harmless."

The Victorian era facts in the gallery above paint a very different picture of the time period than the one usually seen in history books.

Life In The Victorian Era

In 1837, Victoria became Queen of the United Kingdom and ruled for 63 years. During the so-called Victorian era, Britain's empire became the biggest in the world. The Industrial Revolution transformed Britain into a technological powerhouse, and the population skyrocketed.

Between 1815 and 1860, London's population grew three-fold, counting more than 3 million residents.

Unfortunately, the city's rapid growth led to some undesirable side effects. Diseases like cholera spread quickly, and the practice of dumping raw sewage into the River Thames left London foul and polluted.

Population growth wasn't the only change that came at a high price. While the booming railroad business made it easier than ever to cross England, doctors blamed the technology for railway madness, which they defined as a sudden mental break that caused passengers to go mad just because they were riding a train. These so-called "railway madmen" were believed to be driven insane due to the train's sounds and motion.

But Victorians didn't always trust doctors — especially when body snatching was such a common problem. High demand for cadavers in medical schools created an underground market for dead bodies. Eerily enough, some body snatchers didn't even wait until their targets died.

Victorian Fashion Pushed Boundaries

Victorian Era Facts

Wikimedia CommonsVictorian fashion evolved from the hoop skirt to the bustle.

The Victorian era took fashion to new heights. Women wore crinoline dresses that stretched as wide as 18 feet across in the 1850s. And by the 1870s, the puffy bustle was all the rage.

Victorian fashion was also a matter of life and death. The airy fabrics of full-skirted 19th-century gowns were incredibly flammable. Oscar Wilde's half-sisters died after a Halloween party when candlesticks set their gowns on fire. And they weren't the only ones to suffer this painful fate. At one point, it was estimated that 3,000 women died in crinoline-related fires.

Victorians were also fans of body modification — which didn't just refer to corsets. While some women chased the temporary "wasp waist" look, others went with more permanent modifications. For instance, tattoos were popular in the Victorian era, both with criminals and royalty.

Edward VII had a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his body, and George V boasted a red and blue dragon. By 1902, elite men and women lined up for tattoos, with Pearson's Magazine promising that "even the most delicate ladies make no complaint" at the "slight pricking" of the tattoo needle.

Fashionable ladies chose tattoos of butterflies and birds or went for an "all-year-round delicate pink complexion" with subtle face tattoos. Winston Churchill's mother inked a serpent on her wrist.

Unfortunately, Victorian fashion also drove some species to extinction as women adorned their outfits with dead animals. "Dame Fashion," one article wrote in 1890, "has extended her murderous designs to moths and butterflies." Meanwhile, dead birds sat atop hats and beetles replaced jewels on necklaces and earrings.

The Victorians Brought The World To London

Crystal Palace

J. McNeven/Wikimedia CommonsIn 1851, Londoners flocked to the Crystal Palace to marvel at luxuries from around the world.

The Victorian obsession with nature extended beyond insects as jewelry. At the height of the British Empire, Victorians brought the world to London.

Starting in the 1850s, the Crystal Palace showcased exotica from around the world, from gardens to luxury goods. Initially built for the first World's Fair in 1851, the glass building was meant to serve not only as an exhibition for intriguing objects but also as a way to get more of a cultural education.

So the structure featured many artifacts and historical architecture, as well as dioramas of unique flora and fauna found all over the world. Unfortunately, there was also a "human zoo" that featured 60 Somalis — transported to London just so British people could gawk at them.

But Londoners were especially fascinated with Egypt. Travelers brought back mummies as souvenirs and held parties to unwrap them. Thomas Pettigrew personally unwrapped at least 40 mummies. He also embalmed the 10th Duke of Hamilton in the ancient Egyptian method. The duke's body was later buried in an actual ancient sarcophagus that he had purchased 30 years earlier — and even chiseled out to fit his frame.

Many Victorians — especially wealthy ones — saw Britain as the most powerful nation in the world. But even power couldn't protect Victorians from the ever-present reality of death. Cholera swept England multiple times during Victoria's reign, and high mortality rates led to increasingly elaborate mourning rituals.

Take, for example, these Victorian era facts about death: Nearly 60 percent of children born to working-class families died before their fifth birthday. In the decade that Victoria became queen, the life expectancy for tradesmen was 25 years, and for laborers, it was 22 years. Queen Victoria herself spent 40 years in mourning for her husband Prince Albert.

For grieving Victorians, post-mortem photographs helped them remember their deceased loved ones. For people who were paranoid about being buried alive, safety coffins promised to save them from "premature burial." And in one of London's first homeless shelters, men slept in open beds that were shaped like coffins. All in all, Victorian life made it almost impossible to escape death.

After reading about these Victorian era facts, check out the strangest Victorian dating rituals and then learn more about the life of Queen Victoria.

Genevieve Carlton
Genevieve Carlton earned a Ph.D in history from Northwestern University with a focus on early modern Europe and the history of science and medicine before becoming a history professor at the University of Louisville. In addition to scholarly publications with top presses, she has written for Atlas Obscura and Ranker.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Carlton, Genevieve. "27 Bizarre Facts About The Victorian Era That You Didn’t Learn In School." AllThatsInteresting.com, November 24, 2020, https://allthatsinteresting.com/victorian-facts. Accessed May 23, 2024.