January 20

24 comments

Strange Pastimes from the Victorian Era

I’ll be honest with you; as much as I love the Regency and Victorian times and their gossip-loving nobility, I would not have thrived if I had been born back then.

Why, chances are, I would have given my parents’ a whole lot of things to worry about and I certainly would have ended up a spinster.

With lots of horses.

And cats.

And dogs.

Which doesn’t sound so bad right now, actually, but oh dear! It would have been a curse back then!

Daily life in the Victorian Era was strictly regulated, with very particular rules of etiquette that were not to be breached, even during leisure time. In the mid-1800s, visits to public parks, libraries and halls increased (always chaperoned, of course!), however, that did not mean that social rules got any laxer.

Unbecoming behavior, such as public meetings with unmarried men, lapses in decorum, or unsuitable attire were still very much undesirable and forbidden.

Do you know what else was considered unbecoming behavior?

Picking flowers!

(I want to make a flower crown, sue me…)

Having said that though, there was a number of indoor and outdoor pastimes that people of all ages and social standings liked to indulge in, some more than others. Obviously, most of these activities were only accessible to the upper classes, but these social restrictions weren’t enough to stop people from having some much-needed fun.

I’ll go as far as to say that some of these pastimes became “the rage!”

And some of them were weirder than others…

Cemetery Picnics

Sounds crazy?

It sure does!

But I’m telling you, this really used to be a thing!

With fewer parks, gardens, and museums to choose from, many Victorians sought to have a good time in graveyards.

Sprawling “rural cemeteries” began cropping up in Britain after 1830. Groups would pack lunches and have picnics among the tombstones. Afterwards, they might go hunting or have carriage races on the grounds. Cemeteries became such heavily-trafficked destinations that guidebooks were distributed to visitors at some of the most famous locations.

Croquet

Croquet was introduced in England in 1856 and was probably brought to America in the early 1860’s. It was considered particularly suitable for women since it required considerable skills but not too much strength or technique.

(Victorians believed women were deficient in both. Like my iron deficiency, huh?)

Although croquet was never a popular men’s game, it had both social and economic advantages: men and women could play together, and it required little equipment and no special clothing.

-A drawing in an 1870 edition of The Illustrated London News included plenty of croquet players at the All-England Croquet Club. Hulton Archive, via Getty Images.

Fern Collecting

In the 19th century, “fern fever” or pteridomania caught England by storm. It was so prevalent that it was even given an official name: pteridomania. The phenomenon took off in 1829 when a British botanist named Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward started cultivating the plants in glass cases (later known as Wardian cases; today we call them terrariums). Soon enough, Victorians around the country were hunting desirable ferns to grow in their own homes. The hobby was especially popular among women, perhaps because it offered them a socially acceptable excuse to be outdoors unsupervised.

-"Gathering Ferns" (Helen Allingham) from The Illustrated London News, July 1871.

Anthropomorphic Taxidermy

When it came to the taxidermy of creatures of the Victorian period, some had more dignified afterlives than others. Positioning stuffed animals in typically human scenarios became a popular theme within the artform—and it was indeed an artform. Popular taxidermists like Walter Potter and Hermann Ploucquet put an extraordinary amount of effort into making their scenes come to life. Memorable pieces from the era depicted ice-skating hedgehogs, a classroom full of rabbits, and a wedding attended by kittens decked out in highly detailed garb.

Consider me adequately creeped out…

-Walter Potter’s Museum of Curiosities: “A Schoolroom of Rabbits”

Making Scrapbooks…With Seaweed

You can add seaweed to the list of plants Victorians were obsessed with. After collecting the specimens, scrapbookers would paste the multi-colored strands onto sheets of construction paper. The designs were more aesthetic than educational, with the seaweed sometimes arranged to spell out words or form images.

Using Hair To Make Jewelry

Though using human hair in art and jewelry dates back to ancient Egypt, the practice soared to new heights with the Victorians. Snippets of hair were woven into rings, necklaces, pins, watch chains, and other unique pieces of ornamentation. A lock of hair taken from a living loved one acted as a very personal version of a friendship bracelet. Hair cut from the deceased, meanwhile, was often made into keepsakes for those coping with their loss.

And here’s a bonus fan fact, that might not be related to the Victorian Era but I still find it interesting!

Did you know that scientists nowadays can turn human hair into diamonds?!

Some Good Ol’ Ghost Talking

Ah, I saved the best for last!

These days, “seances” seem more like the stuff you see in teen horror films, with a group of unsuspecting teenagers breaking out the Ouija board and unleashing unspeakable evil upon the world. But during the Victorian Era, attending one was a major event. At the time, Spiritualism—a religious practice focused on contacting the dead—was extremely popular. Spiritualists would host intimate séances at home, or go out to see mediums perform otherworldly acts on stage. In addition to moving Ouija boards, mediums would summon disembodied hands, levitate tables, and cough up ectoplasm during communions with the dead. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to participants who bought into their tricks.

Yeaaah, thanks, but no thanks!

Phew!

Victorians sure did know how to have fun, didn’t they?

Why, what could possibly be more exciting that human-looking deceased animals or eating your lunch among the tombstones of strangers?

….

….

….

On a second thought, I’ll stick with my books, thank you!

Written by Hanna Hamilton


Tags

Articles, Regency Romance


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  • Yes, I’ll stick to reading books too! So they could pick ferns, but not flowers? That is kind of nutty! And a picnic in a cemetery? No, thanks!

    But what do you expect from people who put lead on their faces to look paler! Not a good idea, at all! And I definitely would have been a spinster, since I am very independent and opinionated! I would have bought a cottage (unless I was really poor) and lived by myself with cats! Sounds good even today!

    Thanks for the fun article, Hanna!

  • Love your stories. But it would be kind of fun to include séances as part of the storyline!

  • Pretty grim to have fun in a cemetery but then the Victorians were spiritual & had no fear of the dead feeling that they were among friends. But I draw the line at anthropomorphising animals finding this form of entertainment a tad cruel & unnatural. Taxidermy on the whole is just awful but I can understand why some people love their animals too much to be parted from them even after they have died.

  • Well, if you do read your book and eat your lunch in a cemetery, then you should take Buffy the Vampire Slayer just in case the conversation is not as dead as you anticipated. I think croquet is a good choice. My family has actually played it.

  • My father (who sold monuments) always thought cemeteries would become recreational places as the last green spaces in urban environments. Many cemeteries (Crown Hill in Indianapolis, Spring Grove in Cincinnati, Hope in Barre, Vt, etc.) offer tours and pamphlets with celebrity grave sites and fantastic monuments and sculptures. Not picnics, though.

  • I like visiting old cemeteries to see the marker inscriptions and statuary, but picnic? That’s a bit strange to me. Thanks for the fun info!

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