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Victorians were fans of body modification, and many women chased after an hourglass figure with an impossibly tiny waist. The practice known as tight lacing with super-snug corsets left some women barely able to breathe. Many doctors of the era fretted that this desire for a "wasp waist" could prove fatal.
Victoria and Albert Museum
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During the Victorian era, most women didn't wear a lot of makeup — it was considered tacky. Instead, they chased after translucent, white skin. Women with freckles, pimples, or blotches bought arsenic complexion wafers to clear up their skin. That's right, they nibbled on arsenic — advertised as "perfectly harmless" — just to give themselves pale skin.
Helena Independent/Wikimedia Commons
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In the early years of photography, Victorians flocked to photo studios to take family portraits. But photography also gave families a new way to remember deceased relatives. These post-mortem photos, taken after death, helped grieving families memorialize their loved ones. Many Victorians would try as hard as they could to make their relatives look like they were still alive — either by forcibly propping them up or presenting them as if they were sleeping.
Flickr/"Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group
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Women couldn't just throw on a swimsuit and head to the beach in the Victorian period. Instead, they rented bathing machines in order to preserve their modesty. Essentially covered wagons, these bathing machines pulled women to the beach and offered privacy as they dipped their toes in the water.
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French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon was tired of criminals escaping the police. So in 1879, he came up with a new method to track criminals. Bertillon would measure every suspect's head size, middle finger, left foot, and forearm. Police would file the measurements on cards along with photographs. While fingerprinting replaced Bertillon's measurements, he gets credit today for pioneering the mug shot. Wikimedia Commons
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In the Victorian era, stealing fresh corpses from their graves was an extremely lucrative criminal enterprise. A shortage of cadavers for medical school dissections created an underground trade in dead bodies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the practice of body snatching caused multiple riots when families found their loved ones missing from the cemetery.
Thomas Rowlandson/Wikimedia Commons
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Victorian children spent hours each day laboring in factories and brickyards across Britain. Some of the first child labor laws kept children under the age of 9 out of the factories, but anyone older could work up to 9 hours a day. And when they reached age 13, they could work up to 12 hours. In the 1870s, as many as 30,000 children worked in Britain's brickyards alone.
Lewis Hine/Wikimedia Commons
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Cholera was a deadly disease during the Victorian period. The terrifying affliction killed thousands in London, where raw sewage was often dumped in the River Thames. Even worse, when Dr. John Snow warned the city that contaminated water could spread the disease, his warning was not accepted in official circles. A committee appointed by parliament to investigate the epidemic even said, "After careful inquiry, we see no reason to adopt [Snow’s] belief."
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Corsets and crinolines defined the early years of Victoria's reign. In the 1850s, cage crinolines grew larger than ever before thanks to new technology. Made with spring steel, these crinolines provided a sense of lightness and flexibility. The widest skirts measured 18 feet across.
George Cruikshank/Wikimedia Commons
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The Victorian period celebrated nature. And the Victorian obsession with nature translated into some strange fashion trends. Women covered their hats and gowns with bird feathers — and sometimes entire bird corpses. In 1886, an American ornithologist reported sighting pieces of 40 native birds on the hats of fashionable ladies in New York City.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Mummies were all the rage in the Victorian era, when British visitors to Egypt often came home with a mummy as a souvenir. Victorians even held mummy unwrapping parties. One host sent out printed invitations that read, "Lord Londesborough at Home: A Mummy from Thebes to be unrolled at half-past Two." Guests would gather to see what lay beneath the mummy's wrappings.
Paul Dominique Philippoteaux/Wikimedia Commons
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The Victorians invented one of the first homeless shelters in London — but the 19th-century version was pretty creepy. For just four pennies, homeless Londoners could rent a coffin-shaped bed from the Salvation Army.
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What's a garden without a gnome or hermit? Wealthy Victorians didn't want to leave their grounds empty, so they hired real-life humans to serve as ornamental garden hermits on their property.
When Charles Hamilton posted an ad in the paper to hire a garden hermit, he explained, "…he shall be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for timepiece, water for his beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with the servant."
Ludwig Sckell/Wikimedia Commons
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Victorian London stank. After untold amounts of raw sewage were dumped into the River Thames, it became a cesspool. Scientist Michael Faraday even described the river as "an opaque pale brown fluid." During the Great Stink of 1858, a heat wave carried the foul order across London, finally convincing the city to reform its public health policies.
Punch Magazine/Wikimedia Commons
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Many Victorian mourning practices seem quite strange to us today. For example, when a person died, mourners would often clip off a piece of their hair and preserve it in jewelry to remember them.Wikimedia Commons
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Crystal Palace, built in 1851 for the first World's Fair in London, didn't just show off plants, animals, and luxury items from around the world. It also featured a human zoo. Visitors to the Crystal Palace were encouraged to gawk at 60 Somalis, who were transported there from Africa. Getty Images
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Insects were all the rage in Victorian fashion. Women donned live beetles as jewelry and adorned gowns with dead butterflies. Before long, they started to push some species to the brink of extinction. One 1890 article reported, "Not content with her slaughter of the innocents in the matter of birds, Dame Fashion has extended her murderous designs to moths and butterflies."
Ardern Holt/Wikimedia Commons
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The future Edward VII started a trend after his visit to Jerusalem in 1862: tattoos. Once some of the royals gave tattoos their stamp of approval, thousands lined up to get their own. According to one contemporary estimate, more than 100,000 Londoners sported tattoos in the Victorian era. While the British generally hid their tattoos, American Maud Wagner proudly showed off her ink. (Though Wagner lived during the Victorian era, she began her tattooing shortly after that period ended.)
The Plaza Gallery/Library of Congress
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Victorian mental asylums locked away criminals, people with mental illnesses, and people with learning disabilities. According to reformer Harriet Martineau, public asylums contained "chains and strait-waistcoats, three or four half-naked creatures thrust into a chamber filled with straw, to exasperate each other with their clamour and attempts at violence; or else gibbering in idleness or moping in solitude."
Mental asylum portraits capture the chaos and tragedy of life in a Victorian asylum.
Museum Of The Mind
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Mummies had a lot of uses during the Victorian era. Painters used "mummy brown" in their works, a color that was literally made from ground-up mummies. And some people treated diseases by taking mumia (or mummia), a medicine made from mummies.
Bullenwächter/Deutsches Apothekenmuseum Heidelberg
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Victorians feared nothing more than being buried alive. So they designed "safety coffins" just in case they woke up six feet under. These coffins were outfitted with bells above ground in case of "premature burial." But there was one major problem with safety coffins: As bodies decayed and naturally swelled, they might mistakenly activate the bell system.
Christian Henry Eisenbrandt/National Archives
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Victorians may have invented the super villain before the 20th century gave us modern superheroes. For proof, just look at Spring-Heeled Jack, a legendary bogeyman who dressed up in a cloak and attacked people with his claws. Some believers even claimed Spring-Heeled Jack was able to breathe fire.Wikimedia Commons
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Victorians were willing to die for fashion — literally. The crinoline dresses popular from the 1850s to about 1870 were incredibly flammable. During the height of crinoline fashion, an estimated 3,000 women died when their dresses caught fire. Wikimedia Commons
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Victorian factories pumped massive amounts of black smoke into the air. London coal fires added to the toxic mix, creating a thick smog in the city. The pollution stained buildings, caused an awful smell, and created a lot of laundry problems. In fact, Victorian men often dressed in black to help them hide unsightly stains from London's pollution.Wakefield/Wikimedia Commons
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Valentine's Day wasn't just for lovers in the Victorian era. Some people mailed insulting cards called vinegar valentines to their enemies. These cards were so mean that they reportedly caused some recipients to commit suicide.Missouri Historical Society
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Since divorce was expensive during the Victorian period, some men simply opted to sell their wives instead. Bizarrely enough, this would often take the form of a cattle auction, as the husband would bring his wife to a market and give her away to the highest bidder. Even as late as 1901, jurist James Bryce noted, "Everybody has heard of the odd habit of selling a wife, which still occasionally recurs among the humbler classes in England."Wikimedia Commons
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Not all Victorians welcomed the railway boom. Many worried that the sounds and motions of train travel could turn people into lunatics — and this "railway madness" could strike at any time. In 1864, one newspaper told the story of a sailor who swore, shouted at, and attacked people in his carriage. That same year, the Victorian Railways posted a new rule isolating "insane persons . . . in a compartment by themselves."Adolph von Menzel/Wikimedia Commons
27 Bizarre Facts About The Victorian Era That You Didn’t Learn In School
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
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
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.
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.