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.
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.
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!
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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*
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.