The Weird World of Victorian Entertainment
The Weird World of Victorian Entertainment
The Victorians didn't, and I’d like to you all to brace yourselves for this next bit, have computer games or access to the internet. Charles Babbage was making strides in that direction with his mechanical computer, though he probably didn't anticipate that it would one day form the basis of worldwide society dedicated to pornography and pictures of cats. Of course, pornography is nothing new. But what exactly did the Victorians do when they wanted to…uh…make their own entertainment?
Pornography and LOLcats
Daguerreotypes, an early photographic process, came to Britain in 1841. The images were in black and white, but could be hand-tinted…with pink, lots of pink. Because the first thing the Victorians did when presented with a way to make perfect images of the myriad wonders of the world was use it to take pictures of ladies with no knickers on. Unsurprisingly I’ve been unable to find a SFW image using the search term “Victorian pornography”. What I can show you, however is this.
Yakety Sax. Constant loop. Enjoy!
As early as 1870, British photographer Harry Pointer was taking pictures of cats dressed in human clothes and doing human activities, because there is literally nothing in the world so completely insane that the Victorians didn’t think of it first. Perhaps Babbage would have been gloomily unsurprised by today’s internet after all.
The Victorians were also interested in more high-minded pursuits, such as natural history, archaeology and paleontology. Even then, though, they managed to go about it in a way that was as mad as a barrelful of monkeys.
Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh were bitter rivals, and a part of a rush to gather specimens of dinosaurs that became known as the Bone Wars. Between them they named over 40 percent of the dinosaur species known at the time.
Unfortunately, they were so keen to outdo each other that they frequently rushed to announce the discovery of a species the other had already named. In one case they discovered and named the same fossil around two dozen times. They resorted to bribery and theft, slated each other in the newspapers and journals, attempted to sabotage each other’s research, and reportedly blew up dig sites with dynamite rather than let the other fellow get to the specimens. They were both ruined by their rivalry, and because they couldn’t seem to help acting like a couple of teenage girls with the same crush, the science of palaeontology lost any amount of specimens that were literally priceless and utterly irreplaceable.
Ha, see? Totally not what you were thinking.
Not to be outdone just because they were amateurs, high society went through a brief craze for mummy unwrapping parties, because why settle for a game of charades when you can desecrate a corpse and destroy a priceless artefact? The craze is said to have destroyed the majority of royal mummies. Refreshments were served afterwards, because there’s nothing like a desiccated corpse to stimulate the appetite.
We'll bring the beer.
So it seems that the Victorians were a pretty scientific bunch, even if they were collectively suffering from a rampaging case of the insanes. But were they? Most people are probably aware of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in the Cottingley Fairies. However, that wasn't the full extent of his enthusiasm for woo-woo. He was a keen proponent of spiritualism, and he was far from alone.
A common entertainment in Victorian times was to hold a séance led by a medium to contact the recently departed. Seances used all kind of tricks to make it appear the audience was seeing a ghostly vision, from faked trances to objects like trumpets coated with phosphorescent paint and suspended on fine thread.
Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were famous friends, up until Houdini realised the scam artists that these "mediums" were, and went around making them look dumb. He was quoted as saying "Spiritualism is nothing more or less than mental intoxication; Intoxication of any sort when it becomes a habit is injurious to the body, but intoxication of the mind is always fatal to the mind.”, and tried to get laws put in place to shut them all down. But, that is another story.
How seriously did the English take all this? Victoria Helen McCrae Duncan was the last person to be prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act, and that was in 1944, so you guess.
Horrible Histories is awesome. Seriously.
The Victorians were keen on sports, and there are two in particular that show the rather schizophrenic state of mind the country was in during the period.
Bathing was a popular seaside pastime. However, if a woman wanted to bathe in the sea, she couldn't simply paddle in. Instead, the Victorians employed bathing machines, wheeled huts that could be rolled out into the ocean so that women could bathe in privacy. This was to avoid the scandal of a man seeing a woman in her bathing costume, which would be horrible improper. Bathing costumes looked like this.
Bathing machines were in use until the 1890s, but at the same time, women were joining the Rational Dress Society, formed in London in 1881. The society felt that women should be obliged to wear no more than seven pounds of underwear, but also encouraged them to adopt freer clothing for outdoor pursuits. Specifically bloomers, named after Mrs Amelia Janks Bloomer, an early Victorian American, should be worn for bicycling.
As in so many areas of life, the Victorians were simultaneously progressive and prudish.
So next time you picture a Victorian family, with Mother embroidering and Father and the little ones having a sing-song around the piano, remember that they might just as easily have been blowing up dinosaurs, summoning the dead, throwing away their undies and humiliating their cats.
The wonderful and talented OrangeEyebrows is a real-life Cracked.com writer, and we are lucky to have her around.
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