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Weirds Habits From the Victorian Era

Have you ever watched the “Victoria” miniseries? Or the “Crown”? Or any movie or TV Show that deals with the British 18th and 19th century?

If you have, then I’m certain your head is already filled with images of grand manors, elaborate balls, flamboyant dresses and impeccable coifs.

The truth is though, that the Victorian Era was certainly weirder than that.

Much, much weirder…

And today I’m gonna walk you through a few things that might sound downright bizarre to you rears, but they were definitely a thing back then!

Welcome to the dark side!

Belladonna Eye Drops

Victorian women were obsessed with bright eyes.

They admired them, craved them, and apparently, they were willing to do anything to attain that seductive, doe-eyed look.

Even drown their eyeballs in the distilled essence of a toxic plant!

You see, belladonna might mean “beautiful lady” but there’s a pretty good reason why this plant is also called deadly nightshade.

While the use of these eyes drop did indeed dilate the pupil and give the eye a certain glow, they also had a plethora of adverse side effects. Blurry vision, red dry skin, fever, rapid heartbeat, difficulty with urination and sweating, hallucinations, spasms, mental health issue, and, if used over a prolonged period of time, even permanent blindness and coma.

If that ain’t a bargain, I don’t know what is!

-Illustration from Köhler's Medicinal Plants 1887

The Garden Hermit

Yes, you read that one right!

Victorians had a penchant for the bizarre and the unusual.

Among other things that would be considered utterly preposterous nowadays, the people of that Era liked the disheveled look of a hermit.

Large landowners in the 18th and 19th century were unusually fond of the eccentricities of forest people, and they often employed people to assume the role of the live-in hermit.

Picture this: you’re walking down a cobblestone path, with fragrant flowers arranged beautifully all round you. You’re whistling a happy tune as you walk, perfectly content.

And then, the whistling turns into a scream.

Because right ahead, staring at you is an old man with a long beard, tangled hair, and wearing dirty, Druid-like clothes.

These hermits would often spend decades living in an aristocrat’s garden. When they no longer could perform their duties either because of age or sickness, they were given sums of money large enough to get them through the rest of their days.

I do wonder what was written on that job description!

-John Bigg, the Dinton Hermit (via Wellcome Library)

Fasting Girls

Now, considering how big of an issue eating disorders are nowadays, this particular “craze” makes you wonder what exactly were the Victorians thinking back then.

Fasting Girls were women who appeared to possess the ability to survive without sustenance of any kind. “Appeared” being the keyword here. Obviously, these miraculous women were frauds down to the very last one, pretending to possess the unearthly power to live off on nothing more than air.

Of course, as you can imagine, once the show was over, these “special” women ate a feast all on their own.

Why would they day such a lie, I can hear you asking…

Money, fame, the chance to be picked by a rich nobleman as their personal entertainer.

Perhaps the most famous of Fasting Girls was Mollie Fancher, who supposedly lived fourteen whole years without touching food.

-Mollie Fancher(1848-1910), Known is a photograph by Mary Evans Picture Library which was uploaded on January 18th, 2018.

Electrocution

Victorians had a thing for medical therapies.

From hydrotherapy to pelvic finger massages, the people of the Era had a penchant for turning new inventions into medical treatments (many of which were entirely unsuitable for the ailment they were supposed to be a treatment for).

Why would electricity be any different?

Electropathy involved using electricity to alleviate medical problems ranging from gout, muscular weakness, rheumatism and torpid liver to (of course) hysteria.

Essentially, patients paid to be given electrical shocks. Willingly. And they paid for it!

Strange times indeed!

-Antique Davis & Kidder's Patent Magneto Electric Machine for Nervous Diseases

Professional Mourners

Compared to modern attitudes, the Victorians had a morbid fascination and peculiar obsession with death.

And professional mourners, also known as Mutes, were all the rage.

They would usually just stand in their mourning clothes around looking very sad and miserable. Walking around with a big stick, they would follow the hearse and coffin.

Considering the number of deaths during the Victorian Era, demand for the job was high.

I have to give it to Mutes though, they sure did know how to be fashionable!

Cocaine as Dental Care

Yes, you read this one right too!

Apparently, normal dental care was just too mainstream for Victorians.

Back then, toothpaste was not overly famous or regularly used (no surprise there), and instead, people chose to use a homemade tooth powder, which often included cocaine as an ingredient.

I’m not entirely sure why that was, though I presume it served as a numbing agent for the gums.

Even more disturbing was the dental care products that were used on children.

Those were almost entirely made of cocaine!

Oh dear! Can you imagine that?!

So, tell me! Did you know any of these strange habits from the Victorian Era?

Do you know any peculiar fact that belongs on this list?

Oh, please do tell!

Written by Emma Linfield

  • Hello great article. As a history major and great reader I knew all the above except for the fasting girls. Obviously ladies fasted to have those narrow waistlines (assisted by corsets) but did not know it was a ‘thing’ to go see. Terrible really. Thanks so much for sharing history in a way that will inspire non-historians to read it and enjoy.

  • Thanks for all the quirky tidbits. The only item I was familiar with was the professional mourners. The others were rather shocking. Probably a good thing that only the rich could afford cocaine for toothpaste or electrocution for gout. Otherwise, we English descendants probably would not be living happily in the USA. It had come to my notice that the English ladies hardly touched their food (probably due to being laced too tightly) so I am wondering if poor nutrition could have played a role in a number of ladies not surviving childbirth? You can hardly eat like a bird and not take prenatal vitamins and expect an uncomplicated pregnancy and childbirth. Thanks for all your wonderful books and I do appreciate the bits of info that you impart occasionally.

  • I did read an article in Scientific American a few years ago about the first things that were electrified were the sewing machine, the iron and the personal vibrator. Not sure if that is an “er” or an “or” in spelling. That wonderful invention was dedicated to relieving hysteria. Then I caught the movie Hysteria. The credits were worth the price of the dvd.

  • Cocaine numbs the gums, so I’ve been told, so it has been used as dental anesthetic.

    Enjoyed this article so much – this is first time I’ve commented despite years of following these posts!

    Thanks.

  • Dear Emma
    How interesting
    The more info you share not only amazes me and
    How bizarre some of their customs seem.
    how on earth did the next generation come about?
    Man is definitely his own best enemy.
    To think that cocaine is still around today!!
    Thank you
    Thoroughly enjoy reading your books and information shared
    Kind regards
    Lyn

  • I read a lot of books in that time period and before I had heard of some of them and was not surprised of the others. I did enjoy the article.

  • Oh my! I had no idea any of this went on Emma! Thank you for sharing these tidbits of information to include in my knowledge-base of the Victorian era.
    ~~kay~~

  • I read somewhere Victorians had a fascination with death and would pose with dead people, and take photographs of them. They would also wear jewelry made from the dead persons’ hair, and widows would have to wear “widows weeds” for 2 years. Queen Victoria set the trend with her mourning of the passing of Prince Albert.

  • Great information I did know some of these facts but you would think that intelligent. people would not try these dangerous tricks but one never knows how strange to have photographs takenwith dead relatives Norah

  • I only knew of the professional mourners. I am most amazed concerning the Garden Hermits. What a hysterical story for an entire Victorian family to each have a ‘secret best friend’that was the Garden Hermit. The hermit would tell each one to keep their friendship a secret. Even some of the house staff could befriend the man and share good food with him. Sorry, laughing at myself getting carried away as such.

    PS, The hermit is an avid reader as some in the family share their favorite books with him.

  • Belladonna is used today in a medicine called Donnatal. It is for gastritis and stomach issues, but works great to calm you down. For eyes no way but it was probably absorbed throughout the body. I think it is on a control list like benzos. How interesting your updates are.

    Thank you for all your books. I enjoy them.