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.

Victoria and Albert’s Cruise

Everyday Life, Famous Victorians

In the summer of 1858, Victoria and Albert took a leisurely cruise down the Thames, unprepared for the severity of the Great Stink. It is said that they lasted on board only a few minutes, despite bringing scented handkerchieves with them. 🙊🙊

If you missed my previous post on the Great Stink itself, check it out! 

Also, here’s an awesome video on the Great Stink

The Great Stink

Epidemiology, Everyday Life, Great Inventions, Medicine

The summer of 1858 was exceptionally hot for Londoners – the temperatures averaged 34–36 °C (93–97 °F) in the shade, reaching even 48 °C (118 °F) in the sun. This unbearable weather was however overshadowed by something even more unbearable: the Great Stink. 🤢

The source of this unbelievable stink was the Thames, which served as a sewer for all human, factory, and slaughterhouse waste in the area. As the London population doubled in the first half of the 19th century, so did the problems surrounding the river that served as the main source of “fresh” water. Apart from the offensive smells, Thames was also the source of cholera outbreaks and other diseases. The situation was dire and many people, including journalists and scientists, urged the government to take appropriate action even before the events of 1858.

In 1848 the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was supposed to deal with the problem. A prominent engineer called Joseph Bazalgette created plans for a new sewerage system which was estimated to cost £5.4 million. These plans weren’t accepted by the government, which even suggested that cleaning up the river wasn’t really their problem, even though they had to use scented handkerchiefs, tobacco, and curtains covered with chloride of lime to protect themselves from the putrid smells in the Palace of Westminster. 💩

When the Great Stink of 1858 knocked at the House of Commons’ doors, there was no excuse to postpone dealing with it any longer. As the level of the river dropped because of the heatwave, “a huge pile of human waste was left piled up right next to Parliament.” Benjamin Disraeli described it as a “Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors” and proposed a bill supporting the modernization of the sewer system based on the Bazalgette’s plans. 🥰

👻👻👻
This comic was made thanks to Mateusz, who won the possibility of becoming the main character in a local charity event. Thanks! 💜

Don’t forget to check out this awesome video on the Great Stink

Playing Funeral

Entertainment, Everyday Life, Funerals, Home

While it might seem morbid today, children playing funeral were not a rare sight in the Victorian era. ⚰️⚰️ It was a reflection of the times – high mortality rate meant that children often witnessed death in their families, not only of grandparents and parents but also siblings.

Special doll sets containing small coffins and mourning fabrics were sometimes given to girls, who would then practice dressing the doll, laying it in the coffin, and performing other tasks connected with a funeral, like attending the mourners.
🧸 ⚰️🧸 ⚰️

Check out this fragment of an “Ask a Mortician” episode for more info (some dolls in the video are a bit disturbing, feel warned).

The Great Book Scare

Epidemiology, Everyday Life, Medicine

The Great Book Scare was a period between 1880 and 1920 when the general public was obsessed with the idea that library books were a major source of epidemics. 📚😱

Even though the evidence for this was small, especially compared to other potential disease sources, many in the U.S and the U.K. believed that library books could spread everything from tuberculosis to smallpox. 🦠🦠 The authorities and doctors alike started to come up with ideas on how to limit the risk such as treating books with vapors from heated carbolic acid crystals, using formaldehyde, and … just completely destructing books if they had come into contact with a sick person. 😷

Finally, the fear has died out after it turned out that library workers and patrons weren’t really getting sick more often than others. You can read more about these regulations in this article.

Freud and Cocaine

Famous Victorians, Medicine

Sigmund Freud, best known as the father of psychoanalysis, spent a large portion of his life promoting cocaine as a miracle cure for almost everything. Not only did he prescribe cocaine to his patients, but also used it himself on a regular basis. Some scholars believe this has largely influenced his theories on the human psyche and treatments which are considered pseudoscientific today.