19 things that sucked ass in the 19th century

I recently shared out a blog post I’d written about some of the research I was doing for my historical fiction novels set in the 19th century. The comments that came back were overwhelmingly positive, with many saying they LOVED the Victorian period and they enjoyed learning and reading about these times.

I of course, am the same. I’ve always wanted to go back in time and live during these times. Part of me feels like I was born in the wrong century.

What has slowly occurred to me during this research however is how much we romanticise the past. Our ideas of this time period are borne though films, movies, documentaries and books, portraying love stories and wide hoop dresses and rich people living in stately homes with white plumed horses at the door. Downton Abbey has a lot to answer for.

Ruth Goodman wrote a fascinating book called How to be a Victorian. She writes of the social history – of how people actually lived. Using this as a guide and all the rest of the jumbled up things I’ve learned over the years, here are 19 things that sucked ass in the 19th century. I hope they give a feel for how our great great great ancestors really lived.

  1. Fashion

This is probably the first thing (particularly girls) think of when we hark back to the past. Those fabulous massive dresses, with bustles and frills and hoops and corsets. They looked amazing! But can you imagine what it’s like to actually wear them? It must have taken a good half hour just to get dressed in the morning and can you imagine the toilet run? Oh and poor people – you’ll probably only have one dress that you have to live in until it literally falls off. Because clothes are expensive. And Penny’s hasn’t been invented yet.

19th century shoes
Do my feet look big in these?
  1. Transport

Relying on horses to get you places was a pain in the pre-mentioned ass. Being living, breathing animals, they couldn’t just run wherever you wanted forever. If going on a long journey, horses would have to be changed at special coach houses. And add that to the pot holed roads, uncomfortable carriages and the freezing cold, journeys were something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Again, if you were poor, you just had to walk. Enjoy the blisters. The advancement of rail did change things of course. Choo choo!

carriage in the snow
So cold the horse legged it
  1. Time of the month

There was no tampax in the 19th century. So what did they use instead? Well according to my friend Ruth Goodman there were contraptions involving belts and rags and other absorbent material. Think green. Think good for the environment. Think moss. Yes, really moss.

  1. Childbirth

Queen Victoria was a keen advocate for pain relief during childbirth. Being seen as such a natural process, many were against medical interference in the process and there were religious beliefs too. (That Eve one of Adam and Eve Bible fame was a bit of a sinner so take that as punishment all ye women of the earth.) After sniffing on a hanky dipped in chloroform during the birth of her eighth child Queen Vic declared the benefits of pain relief ‘delightful beyond measure’. Thanks Vicky. You rock.

Queen Victoria
  1. Drink

Alcoholism was rampant in the 19th century. Beer was a sustaining drink, because water was often contaminated and depending on what part of the country you lived in, it was beer for breakfast, dinner and tea. The Temperance Movement was a step towards changing our bad drinking habits and they went around saying things like ‘down with this sort of thing’ and ‘careful now.’ Spirit stores were shops that sold swifties to women buying their groceries. Being a mother, I can fully understand how you would need a quick one during the day. Sure I’m locked right now.

  1. Food

Bland. Or missing. People starved during the 19th century. We are so used to food being in the shops and on our table, we don’t give a moment’s thought to where it came from or how it got there. Things were seasonal and reliant on weather. When there was food available it was simple and not exactly spicy. People lived on potatoes, oats, and bread. Mmmmmm. No wonder they washed it down with beer.

More slop please
  1. Bed time

In any of the 19th century houses I’ve visited the beds have always been hard and damp. There was no diving into a feather duvet of tog 15. Many people used rags or clothes as blankets and people slept together for warmth. This brought with it the problem of lice and bed bugs. For travellers who stayed in guest houses or hotels during long journeys, changing the sheets between guests was unheard of. Stinky.

  1. Hygiene

Speaking of stinky, people were. The Victorians had a strange relationship with water and they thought it was damaging to the skin to wash too often. So they didn’t. Can you imagine the smell? It was also hard in general to keep things clean. Water had to be fetched and boiled. Detergents were expensive. It took a long time for sanitary and sewerage services to catch up with demand. We are used to clean streets today. Back then, you would have been hopping over piles of horse poo and often times people’s poo. And as for toilets. Ah look, I won’t even go there.

toilet 19 century
Mr Crapper, inventor of the toilet. No joke – that really was his name
  1. Working hours

Long. So long. Children were like little slaves. Factory working introduced hours that saw whole families get up at the crack of dawn and not finish their shift until late at night. It was a six day working week too. Eventually laws were brought in to try and regulate working hours and give some relief to the exhausted work force. No lazy bank holiday Mondays then.

  1. Christmas

Many of our Christmas traditions were late additions and even Santa Claus didn’t become popular until the 20th century. It was mostly about the family gathering for a nice meal and there’s nothing wrong with that. I just prefer getting a rake of presents, going for a rake of Christmas pints and having snowmen twinkling at me in my sitting room for the whole month of December. That didn’t really happen in the 19th century.

Sssssh I wasn’t really invented yet
  1. Farming

Farmers are hard workers. But in the early 19th century everything was done by hand and the work was tiring, slow and required masses of man and horse power. It also meant that food supply was unreliable. If you want to get a feel for what it was really like to live on a Victorian Farm check out this fab programme.

feeding the chickens
Easiest job ever
  1. The Heat

There wasn’t any. It was bloody freezing in the winter. Chilblains. Layers of clothing. Lighting smoky fires in damp rooms to try and introduce a bit of warmth. If you were lucky enough to have coal.

  1. The Smog

The industrial revolution meant that everything was powered by coal and with the mass burning of this black fossil fuel, the air was overcome with pollution. Buildings were black. The air choked. And people were sick. Lung diseases were rampant. You had better hope you were born into the countryside.

  1. The Rats

Everywhere. When I visited Lissadell House in County Sligo, Ireland this year, they told a story of how 300 rats were caught in the kitchen in one week in the mid 19th century. While people hated rats, they would have been much more used to them than we are today. *shudders*

  1. Disease

The antibiotics and vaccines that we take for granted today mean that we expect to live a healthy and disease free life. Not so in the 19th century. Illnesses that are almost unheard of today wiped out children and adults and often left them with irreparable damage such as deafness or disablement. We may like to moan about the current state of the health service but hey, at least there is a service. In those days, treatment often involved praying over the sick and hoping for the best.

woman 19th century
This woman was so sick her head and hands fell off
  1. The Babies

One of the saddest things I’ve read about is the infant mortality rate in the 19th century. People didn’t just lose babies, they expected to lose them. Families were large to take account of the almost certainty that there would be still births or child deaths at some stage. Heartbreaking.

  1. Washday

Washing was women’s work back in the day. It usually happened on Mondays. If you could afford it, you might be able to send some items out to launder, but for most normal families the woman at home took this mighty task on. Think rubbing at stains, boiling huge vats of water for soaking, scrubbing over and over, rinsing, more soaking and then wringing out do dry. Oh and ironing. No washing machines, tumble driers or electric iron. If you had a mangle you were doing super well. Think I would have just stayed in my dirty clothes.

Washday 19th century
Just doing the smalls
  1. School

Sending children to school wasn’t seen as a necessity. What was necessary was putting food on the table to eat. Campaigns to introduce education to allow children upskill and try to break free from the poverty trap did have an influence and eventually compulsory education was introduced as we know it today. Still there was the corporal punishment. And the learning everything by heart. And still leaving by the age of 12 anyway. You should never complain about final year exams again.

  1. The divide between rich and poor

The reason we think about the Downton Abbeys and Mr Darcy’s and Jane Austen’s is because this is the legacy we have been left with. The rich wrote about their lives and left us with fine stately homes filled with antiques to go visit. The hovel that the Jones’ lived in with their 18 children has long been demolished. And so we need to delve deeper to find out how most people really lived. The majority of people did not lead a privileged life. They struggled. To survive. To eat. To keep their children alive. I am fascinated by the 19th century, but having done my research I am so glad that I wasn’t born then. Even if the dresses were fabulous. And the corsets tight. And the men handsome with their beards.


Do you think we romanticise the past? Have you ever thought about what it was like to live then? I’d love to hear from you.


A Cornish Mum
Life with Baby Kicks

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55 Comments on 19 things that sucked ass in the 19th century

  1. I enjoyed this so much! Especially that I just recently finished reading Pride & Prejudice for the umpteenth time… I dunno. All is true, I just canNOT not be obsessed with the pretty stuff of that era lol ^_^

    SJay // The Chronic Dreamer | A Lifestyle Blog

    • I never got far in Pride and Prejudice – not enough happening for me – I need fast moving text – and it seems the 19th century fiction of the time just doesn’t cut it for me!

  2. I think we definitely romanticise the past. Even if we went back and lived as the rich did I’m not quite sure we’d have the same level as luxury as we do now. And I don’t know what I’d personally do without Penney’s ? fascinating piece! You learn something new every day!

  3. Such an interesting post – it is interesting how romantic a lot of the views of the Victorian era are, when in fact it was pretty horrendous for most people living through it.

    • Definitely, that’s what I was trying to get across. I think the big dresses have a lot to do with our romanticism 🙂

  4. This is such a great post! We definitely romanticize the past, I can’t stand it when people say ‘they had it better/easier back then’, people forget how awful it was for 90% of the population. Also moss!? Ewwww :/

    C x | Lux Life

  5. Love this post. And Go Queen Victoria!

    It was pretty horrendous living. I don’t think I’d have wanted to live then, even if I was rich

    • Well she was criticised for speaking out, but needed to be done! If I did live then I would definitely have wanted money – although from some of the research I’ve been doing – women were treated like prize cattle to be sold off, so not necessarily good to be rich either.

  6. I definitely romanticized the past. I found this blog post so interesting and informative. I enjoyed learning some interesting facts I did not know about the 19th century. So thank god we were not born in that time, sounds extremely tough.

    • Are u serious? U need to install some serious training! We’re not too bad here. It just gets “forgotten” about a lot : )

  7. Well when you put it like that!!
    Truly, it sounds horrendous. But I totally agree, we ALWAYS romanticise the past. My husband for example always goes on about how wonderful the 1940’s wartime must have been. And it does indeed seem like a wonderfully supportive time to be around. But really, who on earth would want to live through a world war at our doorstep given the choice, not me.
    Great post, as always. I think I’m fast becoming your number one fan!
    Anna x

    • I love the style of the 40s, but I remember watching one of those reality programmes once where ur one practically slice her skin off her shin trying to remove the hair on her legs. No razors. These are the things we would have faced! Aw, right back at ya Anna. Let’s be followers!

  8. What a list!! I am here drinking a glass of wine reading these and laughing! I am sure my other half things i am drunk but they are all so well written! I am so glad times have drastically changed for the better!x Great post and so well written.x

  9. Ah! This does not sound like fun times. No Santa?! MOSS! OMG. Disease also of course – not good. Love the title of your post I was laughing before I even started to read it. Very witty but also educational! x

    • Thanks Becky. Who would have thought the 19th century could have been so amusing? Yes the moss has FREAKED people out? Well ALways had to start somewhere…

  10. I love this! You had me at food, I couldn’t cope without good food! I also once moved out for a week from my old house because there was a mouse, so I wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in rat infested Victorian times! glad to have found your blog! xx #PicknMix

    • Thanks a mil – no, I think the rats would have gotten me too – I have such a fear of them! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  11. Argh I barely got past the poo and the cold, I don’t think I was for that time thank god as I sit in my corset-less pj’s, in front of the fire with wine, far better than beer!!

  12. Eek the hygiene bit would definitely put me off travelling back to that era if I had a time machine 😉 Smelly people on trains and in shops is bad enough, without it literally being everyone!
    Thanks for linking up to #PicknMix
    Stevie x

  13. What a brilliant post. I love history, I love Ruth Goodman and I’ve always wondered about ladies time of the month and if they just shut themselves in their room for a week with a good book.

    Funnily enough, my Mum always did the clothes washing on a Monday. A left over tradition from her Victorian Grandmother.

    Having spent quite a while researching my family tree, I find the 19th Century fascinating.

    Thank you!


    • Thanks Mrs M, you should get her book, it’s fantastic! I don’t think women could shut themselves away (although wouldn’t it be bliss?!) as they were far too needed to do all the chores! Glad you find the 19th century fascinating too, so many people do, think it’s because it’s relatable, whereas earlier eras are a bit far out there. A lot of the way we live now is driven by the 19th century.

  14. I love this post-and it only just scratches the surface of the awfulness of the Victorian period that we love to romanticise. Is it bad that the bit that made me most relieved I wasn’t born then was the thought of doing all that washing by hand?

    • Ha, no, not at all. I often think about it as I pile more clothes in to the tumble dryer, grumbling and then think, imagine you were wringing these out by hand!

  15. Of course we do! I keep thinking that washing and cooking must have taken ages and people didn’t wash so often, which must have been lovely! What’s weird is that one day people will do the same for now …!

    • Yes and maybe our noses were different and we just didn’t notice the smell of others back then either! Isn’t it mad that people will get nostalgic for now. But I’m very nostalgic for the 90s!

  16. I definitely romantisce the past. Especially the clothes! I like the thoughts of living in Victorian England, but that’s probably because of the romance novels and the television that shows the whole”upstairs” living, I doubt I’d have been an upstairs person……

    • This is it, it’s so romanticised and the realities hidden! I would def have been a peasant – no doubt. Despite being LadyNicci, I would not have been a lady in the past!

        • Totally has! I used to read and watch everything I could get my hands on about the 1940s, but then I went off the era for a while. it’s mad how I go through the decades. I’m into the 1920 and 30s at the min!

  17. I haven’t seen your blog before but I’m glad I found it!

    TV has a lot to answer for when it comes to romanticising the past. Also the Victorians were far from prudish as their reputation would have you believe.

    I’m interested in Steam punk which takes the romanticising of the Victorian age and then adds goggles, airships and automatons!

    • So sorry for late reply, I try to get back to everyone, but sometimes it takes me an age! Thank you, glad you’re enjoying reading! That’s what I’m beginning to realise and it’s very interesting to be delving into the past. Steam punk is really interesting, I’m just getting to grips with it now. I have some author interviews where the writers are interested in steampunk on the blog – would be worth checking out. Ok, dieselpunk, but think they’re related! ha

  18. I am not surprised that people felt like drinking a lot in those times ???? But you are right, we love to think the past was better. It reminds me my nanny saying !in my days…’ Even I am guilty of saying that and I am not that old, well not 80 or something…#effitfriday

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