The Victorian era was a transformative period in British history. Under Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901, the empire grew to be the largest industrial powerhouse in the world. It was a time of unprecedented advances in the arts and sciences, along with social improvements like the rise of the suffragette movement.
Weirdly enough, the Victorian period is also remembered for some of the most bizarre – and sometimes downright eerie – trends ever imagined in human history. While most people have probably already heard of the Victorian practice of photographing their dead, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, compared to some items on this list, that might even be one of the tamer trends of the era.
10. Belladonna Eye Drops
By the early 19th century, makeup was going out of fashion across western Europe, replaced by a more nude, effortless look that’s popular to this day. Queen Victoria had even gone so far as to declare it impolite, instantly making it unpopular among her subjects.
To achieve that look, Victorian women would often experiment with other alternatives, some of which could only be described as ‘deadly’ in the modern context. From lead and arsenic-based dyes that could severely damage the skin to poisonous substances like vermillion, an average Victorian-era makeup kit could painfully kill you at worst, and leave you with some debilitating life-long conditions at best. Perhaps the deadliest practice of all was using belladonna – one of the most toxic plants we know of – as eye drops to make the eyes look bigger, causing permanent blindness or even death if directly ingested.
9. Creepy Christmas Cards
Christmas cards trace their origins to the Victorian period, when in 1843, a man named Sir Henry Cole – inspired by the recently-published A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – commissioned the first 1,000 copies. However, the earliest Christmas cards were costly to make, as each one had to be individually designed by a professional colorer, using a technique called lithography. It wouldn’t be until the 1870s that improvements in printing techniques and the postal system allowed mass production and distribution.
As for the art style, it’d still take decades before the Victorians really nailed the ‘Christmas card’ aesthetic we recognize today. While many Victorian-era Christmas cards featured everyday designs like animals and landscapes, there was also a strong demand for morbid and creepy designs.
Insects and lobsters were particularly popular, though there were quite a few works featuring mythological monsters and ghostly children as well. According to historians, some of these designs reflected the harsh realities of life during the Victorian period, as quite a few poor children did freeze to death on Christmas.
8. Mummy Unwrapping Parties
The beginning of the 19th century saw a resurgence in popularity surrounding Egypt and ancient-Egyptian culture across Europe, largely due to Napoleon’s invasion of England in 1798. In Victorian-era England, however, the craze took on a much more macabre dimension. They were particularly obsessed with mummies, celebrating them in ways that’d be considered anti science – or even a bit creepy – to anyone today.
One especially dark practice was that of unwrapping Egyptian mummies and showcasing the process like an art exhibit, usually by rich and influential collectors in cities like London. The ceremony would involve food and drinks – much like any other party you’ve been to – followed by slow and careful unraveling of a long-dead, mummified human body in front of a captive audience, usually by a professional surgeon. Depending on the performer, the session could include discussion and commentary about the various features of the mummy, like the state of its skin and hair.
7. The Tapeworm Diet
While it’s true that ingesting tapeworms could theoretically help you lose weight, science has advanced far enough to know that it’s a horrible idea. That wasn’t the case at all during the Victorian era, when it was considered normal to sacrifice one’s health and well-being to attain the almost-impossible beauty standards of the time.
To get that fragile, almost-dead look popular back then, many women resorted to the tapeworm diet, which is exactly what it sounds like. It was usually administered as a pill with tapeworm larvae, which would then hatch, enter the digestive system, and hopefully start absorbing a part of whatever the host ate. Of course, as the tapeworm is also a parasitic worm, things didn’t always go as expected, as the diet led to other medical complications like diarrhea and vomiting.
6. Dangerous Cosmetics
A box of cosmetics in a typical Victorian household would contain many things considered industrial hazards today, so much so that if you ended up dying due to chemical exposure, it’d be difficult to tell exactly what killed you.
Lead was a particularly popular ingredient, widely found in powders and foundations used by women throughout the Victorian era. Paints containing high amounts of lead were used to achieve a deathly pale look, though they also corroded the skin and left other long-term effects on the body. Mercury was another favorite, used in products ranging from blemish removers to cold creams.
5. Baby Farmers
The Victorian period was a particularly tough time for single mothers. While abortion was illegal and socially frowned-upon, so was the mistreatment of children by their parents, and the death of a child due to abandonment or neglect carried an almost-certain death penalty. On top of that, it was next to impossible for single mothers to find a job, thanks to the social stigma attached to giving birth out of wedlock.
To get out of their situation, many women opted to hand over their unwanted children to someone colloquially known as a ‘baby farmer’. These were other women or agencies that adopted and fostered the children in their care, usually in exchange for a large fee. While it was a noble idea and many of these agencies indeed turned into the earliest forms of adoption agencies, the system was marred by cases of abuse. In particularly extreme cases, like those of Margaret Waters and Amelia Dyer, many kids were murdered days – or even hours – after being adopted. The practice was so widespread that the British government had to pass laws like the Infant Life Protection Act and Children Act of 1908 to put an end to it.
4. Bathing Machines
Bathing machines were essentially portable changing rooms for women, mainly used at the beach and other public swimming spots. Despite their rather progressive ideas in other areas – like makeup – Victorians were still quite prudish about women having a good time in the open. To make sure that didn’t happen, strict segregation laws were implemented across Victorian England in 1832, making it compulsory for men and women to be at least 60 feet apart at the beach.
Of course, that wasn’t enough, as it still allowed women to have a good time publicly, if only a bit farther away from men. The bathing machine was the perfect solution. At its most basic, it was a large box on carriage wheels that could be dragged into the water by horses or manual labor, complete with sections for wet clothes and step ladders to keep the whole thing above water. The swimmer would enter from one side, change into their swimsuits, and exit into the water on the other. More elaborate designs – like the one used by Queen Victoria – came with drapes and other improvements for further privacy.
3. Scheele’s Green
In 1775, a Swedish scientist called Carl Wilhelm Scheele came up with his own concoction for a green dye. Now known as Scheele’s green, it was made with copper arsenite, and massively improved on other greens available in the market. It looked like the color green found in nature, for one, compared to the gray or brown shades found in most of its alternatives. It was also quite poisonous, as we now know, leaving anyone exposed to it with some long-term medical conditions. In the more extreme cases, it could even cause death.
Regardless, Scheele’s green – and an improved version called Paris Green – became immensely popular during the Victorian era, used in everything from wallpapers to carpets to even children’s toys. It’d be accurate to picture this time period in a green hue, even if most people were well aware of the harmful effects of exposure to arsenic. According to one rumor, Napoleon Bonaparte likely died from excessive amounts of Scheele’s Green present in his manor at St. Helena.
2. Human Hair Jewelry
You’d think that arsenic and lead were the most bizarre ingredients found in a typical Victorian home, though you’d be wrong. There was also human hair, usually taken from a deceased loved one and fashioned into jewelry, like wreaths, necklaces, bracelets, and everything else one can make with hair.
It was an entire art form of the era, and it took a painstaking amount of effort and time to make the more elaborate pieces. It wasn’t uncommon to use hair from more than one deceased relative, or even a family pet, if it helped the look. The practice died down some time in the 20th century, as more and more people started to realize that it was sort of creepy. However, one can still find museums and private societies dedicated to the preservation of the craft.
While medicine and surgery reached new heights during the Victorian period, the physicians, surgeons, and other medical experts were always short on subjects to experiment on. As capital punishment was quickly going out of style during this time, there was a sudden, severe shortage of dead bodies for scientific experiments.
These conditions gave birth to an entirely new class of criminals – the resurrectionists, a euphemistic term for grave robbers and organ traffickers that regularly supplied hospitals with fresh cadavers and dead body parts to work with. While the practice was illegal, obviously, the high fees offered by medical practitioners – combined with the high level of unemployment in the country – made it a lucrative, widespread occupation. It was so bad that at its peak, people had to guard the graves of their loved ones to ensure that they didn’t get robbed.