Ambulance Balloons (?)

Great Inventions, Medicine

It is said that the air transport of patients began during the siege of Paris in 1870, where wounded soldiers were supposed to be evacuated to safety by hot air balloons. However, some scholars aren’t convinced that that’s what really happened and link this historical rumor to the popularity of Jules Verne’s stories about balloons. Regardless of the truth, by the end of the nineteenth century there were at least a couple of people who proposed air transportation of patients.

One of them was a Dutchman called M. de Mooy, who designed a system in which a stretcher could be suspended from a balloon, which in turn could be gently steered by horses in the right direction. So, was this idea ever really applied outside of experiments? I’d love to see some primary sources on the subject, let me know if you know more about balloon ambulances. 🙂 In the meantime, check out this Sawbones episode on ambulance history.

Also, would you like to be transported this way in case of an emergency?  

Irish Jack-o’lanterns

Everyday Life

It’s believed that making jack-o’-lanterns originated in Ireland and the tradition was brought to the United States by Irish immigrants in the 19th century. 🎃 That’s when jack-o’-lanterns started to be associated with pumpkins rather than the traditionally used potatoes, turnips, and beets.

Check out this traditional turnip:

Spirit Photography

mourning, Spiritualism

Photo manipulation is as old as photographs themselves!

The Victorians came up with several clever tricks to make photographs more entertaining, e.g., they used photomontage and combination printing to produce headless portraits, inspired by popular stage magicians. Double exposure was also used to add objects not present in the original exposure, such as ghostly figures or floating items. Unfortunately, some people used these techniques in a more questionable way. 

A few photographers started working as mediums and marketed their spirit photographs as evidence of the afterlife. The spiritualist movement quickly adopted the use of spirit photography and published numerous books on the subject.

Check out some quirky headless photos here.

Mortsafe

Funerals

If you’ve ever visited an old Scottish kirkyard, you might have stumbled upon an iron or stone contraption protecting a grave. They are called mortsafes and many people think they were used by their superstitious ancestors to keep the dead inside their coffins. 🧛‍♂️🧟‍♀️ While it is true some Victorians believed in vampires and other supernatural beings, the truth behind the mortsafes is even more interesting than the myth. These heavy objects were placed on the grave or encapsulated a coffin (in a form of a cage) to protect the dead from resurrectionists, in other words body snatchers, who would dig up fresh bodies and sell them to surgeons. ⚰️

The most famous resurrectionists of the time were Burke and Hare who supplied a surgeon named Robert Knox in the early 19th century. These grave robbers (and later murderers) conducted their activities in Edinburgh, the leading center of anatomical study at the time, which is probably the reason why most of the surviving mortsafes can be found in Scotland. The iron cages and other contraptions were expensive, so it was popular to “rent” a mortsafe and reuse it for a different grave in several months, once a body was decomposed and therefore useless for anatomists. The popularity of mortsafes started to diminish after the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832. 💀

Princess Sisi

Cosmetics, Famous Victorians

Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837 – 1898), more commonly known as Sisi, was famous for her extraordinary beauty, lavish hair, and fashion sense. To live up to her own standards, she practiced elaborate beauty routines with the use of a variety of products. Some of these products contained surprisingly weird ingredients… 

This comic was inspired by a great Sawbones episode: Wrinkles.

Post-Mortem Photography

Funerals, mourning

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

Everyday Life, Food

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

Taxidermy

Entertainment, Home

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

Fashion

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.