December 21, the winter solstice, is a day on which Victorians would honor St. Thomas by participating in various charitable events, giving food and money to the poor. One of the customs was for poor women to go around the houses asking for alms, which was often referred to as going “a thomasing”, “a gooding”, or “a mumping.” The last term comes from the word mumpers, a name given to toothless beggar women, probably originating from the Dutch mompen = to mumble.
On December 26, 1882, certain James A. Williams was granted a patent for a rather peculiar invention: an animal trap with a spring-loaded firearm. In his patent application, Williams described how the contraption worked:
“[I]t consists in the combination of a suitable frame upon which a revolver or pistol is secured, a treadle which is secured to the front end of this frame, and a suitable spring and levers, by which the firearm is discharged when the animal steps upon the treadle (…) The object of my invention is to provide a means by which animals which burrow in the ground can be destroyed, and which trap will give an alarm each time that it goes off, so that it can be reset.”
Of all the 19th-century ideas on how to deal with pests, this must be one of the most dramatic and over-the-top! The Texan inventor went even further and noted that “[t]his invention may also be used in connection with a door or window, so as to kill any person or thing opening the door or window to which it is attached.”
Starting today, I’m going to share with you some interesting and/or amusing phrases taken from The Victorian Dictionary of Slang & Phrase by J. Redding Ware. That is additionally to the regular comics of course! Let’s start with those three and let me know what you think of that format
Pumpkin-face (American) A round face with no expression in it.
Air-hole (Soc., 1885-95) A small public garden, generally a dismally converted graveyard, with the ancient gravestones set up at ‘attention’ against the boundary walls.
Got the morbs (Soc., 1880) Temporary melancholia. Abstract noun coined from adjective morbid. This fantastic phrase starts our biweekly Patreon series illustrating Victorian slang.
This week we’re coming back to the infamous war of the currents, which took over scientific and public debate in the 1880s and 90s. One of the things that happened during that time was “the wire panic” spread by the New York press with such headlines as “Death by Wire” and peculiar cartoons. The articles were aimed at George Westinghouse’s company, the use of high-voltage alternating current (AC), and the electrical wires taking over the city like a giant spider’s web. As we know, the war against Westinghouse and AC was mainly fueled by his rival, Thomas Edison, whose official aim was to protect the people’s lives, but in reality also to promote his electrical system and ruin competition.
Edison wasn’t completely wrong in his efforts though; the AC system at the time lacked appropriate regulations and led to several deadly incidents. The most known involved John Feeks, a Western Union lineman working in Manhattan. On October 11, 1889, Feeks died seconds after he touched a telegraph line that had been shorted with a high-voltage AC line. And even though the 19th century was an extremely dangerous time for industry workers (e.g., 1 out of 100 railroad brakemen died annually in the US), that accident was witnessed by hundreds of mortified people, who watched Fleek’s body smoldering for almost an hour. The incident was highly reported by the press, intensifying the public’s fear of the mysterious, inherently dangerous nature of electricity and electrical wires. A heated debate over the regulation of the electric industry ensued, along with several weeks of complete darkness in New York as the overhead AC lines were cut down.
Shout-out to Andrzej, who reprises his role as a Victorian hatter in our anti-wire poster inspired by a 1889 cartoon entitled “The Unrestrained Demon.”
In the early 1880s, an electric light revolution started to take over big American cities. Two electric power transmission systems were introduced: street lamps utilizing high-voltage alternating current (AC) and indoor lighting using low-voltage direct current (DC). The latter was heavily promoted by Thomas Edison, especially when his company was suddenly threatened by new competition: George Westinghouse and his transformers and wire system enabling AC to be used for indoor lighting. The introduction of this new system started the so-called war of the currents, in which the Edison Electric Light Company tried to besmirch Westinghouse’s name and solutions by sparking fear in the public. And while at the time it was true the AC system could be extremely dangerous, the actions taken by some of the people involved were questionable to say the least and involved lying to the press, blackmail, and even killing animals.
This comic was inspired by Andrzej who won the possibility to become one of the characters in a local charity event! If you would also like to become a character in one of the future comics, check out the Anatomist membership level on Veinity Fair Patreon.
Many Victorians enjoyed sugary treats in amounts unimaginable to the previous generations. This combined with poor hygiene and dentistry only in its infancy caused high levels of tooth decay. In many cases the rotting teeth couldn’t be saved and had to be extracted, leaving people with rather toothless smiles. Not all was lost though, at least not to those who could afford a nice set of dentures.
Replacement teeth were traditionally made of ivory (like walrus, hippopotamus, or elephant), but could be prone to breaking and discoloring. A better solution turned out to be making ivory-based dentures set with … real human teeth. There were a few popular ways to obtain those: buying them from the poor, forcing them out of unfortunate victims (often enslaved people), and using resurrectionists’ services to dig up some teeth from graves or ransack casualties at battlefields. It is said that one of the biggest teeth scavenging took place after the Battle of Waterloo, giving the name to “Waterloo teeth”.
19th-century ‘Ambition Pills’ were supplements for men that promised to get rid of a variety of problems: impotence, sleeplessness, enlarged veins, and nervous debility. Unsurprisingly, a few decades after the introduction of those pills, a study found that their ingredients were questionable. In 1918, the Journal of the American Medical Association found that each pill contained “a little over one-thirtieth of a grain of strychnin” and that it was “possible for any one to purchase enough strychnin in a single box of Wendell’s Ambition Pills to kill an adult.”
I know you’ve all been waiting for the great comeback of our favorite poison – arsenic.
In 1874, a surprising medical case investigated by doctor Wintreberg was described in “Revue de Thérapeutique Médico-Chirurgicale.” One of Wintreberg’s patients was suffering from recurring and painful anal ulcers, and there was no indication as to what could have caused them. Lotions, enemas, special diet – nothing helped for long. After some time it turned out that a few other members of the family started experiencing the same symptoms, which gave Wintreberg a clue as to what was going on. After a brief “investigation” it turned out the culprit was … green poster paper the family used in their latrines. Tests confirmed that the poster paper contained copper arsenite! Fortunately, it was enough for the family to throw the paper away to ease their symptoms.