- Mark Twain about Jane Austen
Apparently, Mark Twain really didn’t like Jane Austen. 😮 If you’d like to find out what else he said about her, check out this article by Emily Auerbach.
- Post-Mortem Photography
The Victorians are known for their obsession with death and elaborate mourning practices, something that was undoubtedly influenced by the high mortality rate of the times. ☠️ The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 allowed them to explore mortality and grief through a new medium – post-mortem photography. 📸Families would have their pictures taken with dead relatives lying peacefully in a bed or, more unusually, posed in a life-like manner on a chair. Some resources even claim that special metal constructions could be used to make the corpses ‘stand” for the photo, however, this is more likely just a myth fueled by misinterpreted 19th-century pictures.
While post-mortem photography might seem morbid today, it’s worth remembering that these photos were often the only images that people had of their loved ones: first photographs were costly, not easily available, and required long exposure time. These photos were valuable family keepsakes. 💜
While there are a few online collections of post-mortem photography, you can also check out this video on debunking the “standing corpse” photographs: Ask a Mortician
- Food Coloring
In mid-19th-century England, three things became quite common: the five o’clock tea ☕️, sugar consumption 🍰, and the use of food coloring🍦. This mix could become quite deadly when an afternoon tea hostess would buy ready-made sugar cake decorations. Why? At the time the most vibrant and thus the most eye-pleasing food colors were achieved by adding some pretty dangerous stuff, e.g., copper sulfate for blue, copper arsenite for green, or mercury sulfide for red. ☠️☠️ Also lead was added to achieve different shades depending on the formula. ☠️ Many people got seriously sick and some even died because of the coloring in their sweets. In 1851 nearly 200 people were poisoned by colored lozenges, 17 of whom fatally. This and other fatal events finally led to the passing of the Adulteration of Food and Drink Act of 1860, one of the first focused on food safety.
I found inspiration for this comic in this book all about food and customs around it: The Art of Dining
Last week we talked about feather hats and the use of whole taxidermy animals in the millinery industry. 🦜 But that’s not the only way the Victorians used taxidermy. Many treated it as a regular pastime, appropriate for people of all ages. At first, stuffed animals appeared in the parlors as the evidence of the given homeowners’ hunting skills, interest in natural history, or simply a part of a larger collection of unique items. While most of the specimen were prepared by hired specialists, taxidermy courses for the general public became quite popular as well.
Near the end of the 19th century, a new form of the hobby entered the scene; anthropomorphic taxidermy. In this style, the mounted animals were posed and dressed in a human-like fashion. The animals also “performed” various activities, for example, playing cards, dancing, or getting married. 🙈🙉🙊
Although the most famous taxidermists of the time were men, it is worth remembering that the hobby was enjoyed by many women, who were already used to dealing with dead animals in the kitchen or work (remember the feather hats? The millinery industry employed mainly women for the job!). 👩🎨
- Feather Hats
Fashionistas of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras were obsessed with hats. 👒 Particularly with feather hats, adorned with bird feathers, heads, wings, and even whole animals. 🐦🦜 The demand for birds was so high that the millinery industry decimated dozens of species and even drove one of them – the passenger pigeon – into extinction. The last passenger pigeon died in captivity in 1914.
As taxidermy was a popular Victorian pastime, it is said that not only birds, but also other animals such as squirrels, mice, and even cats fell victim of the over-the-top hat fashion. 🐿🐁🐈 In 1883, The New York Times published an article on French fashion stating that “The demand for kittens’ heads has become so important that cat breeding has become a regular business.”
To be honest, I’m not sure if this article wasn’t exaggerating about the French love for kitten hats, so let me know if you’ve come across any other sources on that. 😺
On a brighter note, check out the story of Harriet Hemenway, an activist who pushed for the first federal conservation legislation in the U.S. and greatly limited the feather hat trade.
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