January 20, 2014

How to be a Victorian

I'm currently reading this wonderful book by Ruth Goodman, a British historian who literally gets into her work and has been on programs such as Victorian Farm and Victorian Pharmacy (the entire episodes are currently on YouTube).

I love Ruth's personality and sense of humor, which come through on these programs and in her book.

The book, a more appropriate title for which should really be something like A Day in the Life of a Victorian, focuses on everyday life in mid to late 19th century Britain, covering everything from how people washed to how they traveled to what they ate to how they dressed. Goodman, having actually experienced the life for months, is in a position to actually be able to describe these things firsthand, so you're not just getting a description of the fashions, but what they actually felt like to wear.

Many things actually surprised me-- for example, most middle and upper class Victorian Brits washed themselves all over, daily, often with soap, standing at their washbasin (most people at this time didn't have actual bathtubs). Working class and poor people generally didn't have the money or facilities to be able to wash as often, so the people who washed began to notice that the people who didn't smelled different-- whereas before this era, bathing with water wasn't common for anyone, regardless of class... so everyone would have smelled the same. In short, there was now an odor distinction, which is where the term "the great unwashed" comes from.

The diet of the average Victorian was also very poor-- most people, and children especially, lived on almost exclusively on carbohydrates and sugar, with few meats or vegetables. Even children in wealthier homes were often hungry, as restricting food was considered a good way to teach self-denial and make kids stronger. This, in addition to the practice of literally drugging babies with opiates and laxatives, makes it a wonder that the infant mortality rate wasn't even higher than it was.

Doing laundry, a process that today takes only a couple of hours a load (or total, if you use a laundromat and can do all of your loads at once), took about 3 days in Victorian times, if you include soaking, drying, and ironing). The washing alone took all day.

As disenchanted as I often am with today's world, reading books like this makes me grateful for things like instant access to temperature-controlled running water, indoor plumbing with flush toilets, bright light at the flick of a switch, climate control units, and antibiotics.

It also makes me realize that many of those we consider "poor" live luxuriously by the standards of previous centuries, live better, in fact, than monarchs and emperors of the past; they still usually have hot and cold running water, electricity, AC, cars, televisions, and even mobile phones. This was illustrated by Mother Theresa, who, after visiting Harlem, New York, asked, "So where are your poor?" She was used to the truly abject, literally starving masses of Calcutta.

This also applies to genealogy research: here I am, moaning about how I can't this or that piece of information, when twenty years ago I wouldn't have 95% of the vast amount of information accumulated over the past 8 years, because I didn't have internet. Getting all of the records and information I've been fortunate enough to get would have required travel and letter writing, and generally a great deal more work and money. Census records, and many vital records can be accessed today instantly from our computers, often for free, while sitting in our bedrooms in pajamas.

So, in addition to providing some very interesting information about real life in Victorian times, this book has helped me to be a bit more grateful for the many things I have.

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