Last updated on April 6th, 2023 at 10:24 pm
The Victorian period extended from 1837 to 1914, and during this time, social change, economic growth, and the rise of the industrial revolution changed the way that people lived all around Europe and in the United States.
The Victorians were a study of opposites. They were excited by the possibilities of a new and changing future, and yet regressively concerned about upholding morals and values from a dying age.
This contrast between moving into a new era, and the desire to maintain the old-fashioned values of the times, led to many slightly odd, yet fascinating trends.
These often macabre, yet whimsical trends swept the lifestyles of the Victorians and helped to usher in the events of the roaring 20s, and the social changes that followed World War I.
The Strangest Trends Observed by the Victorians
Photographs With the Dead
One of the stranger trends that Victorians observed was taking pictures with the dead. Photography was a new and exciting invention, one that required holding still for an extended period. Because of this, taking pictures with the dead may have been a lot easier than posing with a large group of living people.
By modern standards, posing for photographs with the dead might be considered creepy, but to Victorians, being able to record one last image of a beloved child, wife, husband, or parent was worth the discomfort of creating the image. As this practice became more popular, even the discomfort of taking photographs with the dead became a normalized tradition.
One perplexing piece of this practice is that the Victorians would dress up the deceased, and recreate poses with them as if they were still alive. In many cases, it’s even hard to tell that the person in the picture is actually dead. As if posing with a dead body dressed in their finest clothes was not enough, many of the images would also be inscribed with foreboding statements like, “Remember, you must die”.
It is important to remember that this was a time when people frequently lost their children and other loved ones to illness and other untreatable health conditions. It makes more sense to practice this macabre routine when you consider how much mortal loss was a part of Victorian life.
Victorian fashion was very unique from previous generations. Just like in today’s fashion industry, there seemed to be no limit to the heights of the trends that people were willing to try. Bigger, more fantastical, fashion trends came about nearly every year, and some of them were truly bizarre. One of those is taxidermy hats.
Taxidermy hats were all the rage during the Victorian period, especially in the early 1900s. Taxidermy was already increasingly popular for its use in museums, and for big game hunters to preserve and display the exotic animals that they possibly traveled to other countries to kill. The thought became: Why not extend this practice into the fashion world?
Taxidermy hats were worn by ladies. They ranged from a small hat adorned with a few songbirds to a fantastical, towering display that could include a taxidermy cat, or something as large as an owl.
Small birds were the most common addition to these kinds of hats due to their lightweight, but even bats and large fowl might be seen at truly fancy parties.
A Prudish Treatment of Sex
Victorians lived with a highly complex double standard about sex. While sex was never discussed in public, and it was considered very bad form to even disclose that someone was pregnant, the Victorians produced an inordinate amount of pornography.
Victorian men were also very likely to keep a mistress if they could afford to, but they were never to let on that they spent time in the company of “ladies of the night”.
Most women of the Victorian period accepted that men were not capable of being faithful to their marriage vows. Yet, men who were caught enjoying the company of a woman who was not their wife might face severe social stigma. Victorians were eager to explore the new possibilities that were being offered to those of some social classes, but they could not openly discuss these explorations in public.
Speaking With the Dead
Victorians often lost family members in large numbers due to disease and social strife. The Victorian obsession with connecting with the dead was likely an offshoot of the desire to fight back against the seemingly senseless deaths of children, spouses, and parents.
Victorians used several means of reaching out to the dead. One of the most common methods was through performing seances. These were often led by supposed mediums, who were usually hucksters looking to make easy money through the grief of families trying to reach their lost loved ones.
People might also hold their own ceremonies at home, calling to the dead together around the fire. In locations where the Romany people might visit a town, Victorians could appeal to them to help them to reach out to those beyond the veil.
Speaking with the dead was an experience that people of all social classes tried. In the United States, the Winchester House with its strange architecture shows us just how obsessive Victorians could be when trying to interact with the ones they have lost.
Victorians embraced the strange and unusual. Increasing opportunities to interact with other countries provided a nearly endless supply of surprising and different people and things to marvel at.
Freak shows during the Victorian period might display both animal and human fetuses with birth defects, alongside wild animals in captivity, and other curiosities from faraway places like Egypt. These shows traveled through towns and cities and charged a ticket fee to allow spectators to gawk at their offerings.
Freak shows were often quite sad affairs for those chosen to be a member, and by today’s standards, they might even be considered abusive.
Small children born with birth defects might be sold to these traveling shows by their parents, and adults with severe deformities were sometimes forced to join these shows to earn a living. Freak shows were another element of the macabre that Victorians reveled in, which would likely not be allowed today.
Consuming Mummies as Medicine
Victorians eagerly looked for medical solutions to various ailments that could still not be treated successfully. As a result of this interest in resolving common ailments, and curing diseases that were still poorly understood, Victorians were prone to testing all kinds of creative medical treatments.
One of the most popular treatments for a large number of health problems was ground-up mummy. After discovering mummies in Egypt, the British became obsessed with all things Egyptian. Mummies were essentially stolen from Egypt in huge numbers and were used for museum displays and medicinal purposes.
The practice of consuming ground bones as medicine dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Victorians felt that they were just borrowing old health remedies and turning them into new and exciting medical treatments (Dolan, 2012).
Fashion was always in flux during the Victorian period, and jewelry got as much attention as dresses and hats. Hair jewelry was very common during this period, and many women made their own hair jewelry at home.
These items might be made from the hair of a beloved family member or child, or even the hair of someone who had passed away would be kept and re-purposed as hair jewelry.
Hair jewelry might be worn daily to keep someone close to your heart, but it could also serve as a memento item that was tucked into a jewelry box to be looked at from time to time. Hair brooches and other kinds of hair trinkets might also be pinned onto jackets and hats.
Discussion of Psychology
Mental illness was still poorly understood during the Victorian period, and issues and behaviors classified as “nervous conditions” were finally being recognized in people of both sexes.
This new interest in psychology became popular among all classes – from doctors to the lower classes working in factories. Sigmund Freud’s works became foundational for discussions of the interior psychology that guided the actions of men and women, and dinnertime discussion might include debate over the principles in his books.
One of the less favorable outcroppings of this interest in the psyche helped to create the theories upon which the Eugenics movement was built. However, in the early phases of this trend, there were some positive steps taken to understand human emotional and psychological conditions more thoroughly.
Victorians might have been wrong about a lot of their assumptions that the brain and the body were two separate and disconnected entities, but they did start the ball rolling on a long overdue study.
Victorians came up with many very odd games to play in the drawing room. Games like ‘Hot Cockles’ required that someone first submit to being blindfolded.
They then needed to find everyone who was hiding from them around the room without being kicked or knocked away. Other blindfold-based games existed, like ‘The Bellman,’ which involved one person ringing a bell while everyone else closed their eyes and tried to lunge to catch them.
Even stranger were games like, ‘Are you there, Moriarty?’, were played, which was similar to the pool game ‘Marco Polo,’ but involved swatting someone on the head with a rolled newspaper.
Victorians also placed backgammon, chess, and draughts, but silly social games were also quite common in their place. Perhaps there should have been some more consideration about the inherent danger of a group of people blundering around with their eyes closed in small cottages with candles on the table, but the Victorians were not deterred.
Not learning from the Georgina Era, arsenic dress is one of the stranger Victorian trends that was also potentially deadly. These seafoam green dresses were once at the height of fashion, but they were dyed this color using arsenic. This deadly substance was used to dye most green items during this period, but exposure to green dye was not ideal for your health.
Consumer demand made this method of dyeing fabrics green common for a large portion of the Victorian period, despite increasing evidence that exposure to these fabrics was not good for you.
Arsenic dresses were common until the end of the Victorian period when safer ways of creating dark green dyes were developed. It is still the case that historical collections handle green dresses with care due to the risk of toxicity and poisoning from contact with these items on a daily basis.
The Victorian Era Was Strange and Wonderful
The Victorian period was one of huge change and development. Wonderful and weird trends were common during this period. From taking pictures with the dead, to wearing hats with a taxidermy owl on top, the Victorian period took advantage of every new technology that was offered and accessible.
As a Victorian, you might have played some very odd parlor games, worn a dress dyed with arsenic, or tried to contact the dead with the help of a medium.
Every time period gives rise to trends that seem strange to those of us looking back. But to the Victorians, the things that we do today would likely seem just as strange as this list of Victorian practices seems to us.
Britannica.com. “Victorian Era.” 5 Jan. 2023, https://www.britannica.com/event/Victorian-era. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.
Britannica.com. “Taken from Life: The Unsettling Art of Death Photography.” BBC News, 5 June 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-36389581. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.
Flint, David. “THE BIZARRE AND DISTURBING WORLD OF VICTORIAN TAXIDERMY HATS.” The Reprobate, 10 Dec. 2021, https://reprobatepress.com/2021/10/15/the-bizarre-and-disturbing-world-of-victorian-taxidermy-hats/. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.
Learning Bodies of Knowledge. “Victorian Freak Shows.” Learning Bodies of Knowledge, 24 May 2021, http://vll-minos.bl.uk/learning/cult/bodies/freak/freakshow.html#:~:text=Freak%20shows%20were%20a%20particularly,until%20money%20had%20changed%20hands. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.
Dolan, Maria. “The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine.” The Smithsonian Magazine, 6 May 2012, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-gruesome-history-of-eating-corpses-as-medicine-82360284/. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.
“Victorian Hair Jewelry.” Victoriana Magazine, http://www.victoriana.com/Jewelry/victorian-hair-jewelry.html. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.
Victorian Era. “Victorian Era Psychology Facts.” Victorian Era, https://victorian-era.org/victorian-era-psychology.html. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.
GameArchive. “Victorian Parlor Games.” GameArchive, https://gamearchive.as.ua.edu/victorian-parlor-games/. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.