Now that Past Lives #1: Rachel is finally out, I’m revisiting some older posts from my Blogspot days.
Pollution: Most homes burned coal in their fireplaces, not wood. And in the grander houses, virtually every room had a fireplace. This is why London fog was usually yellow. And sometimes it was so thick, a lady could arrive home after a day of shopping to find her dress “grayed” by a fine layer of coal dust. Therefore the average man wore black, day in and day out. Inside even the finest homes, the wallpaper had to be washed at least once a year (after a long winter of burning fires daily, spring cleaning was essential). The ceiling plaster was frequently black.
Bathrooms: By the 1870s, most fine houses had indoor toilets, or “water closets.” Because the most common version was designed by a man named Thomas J. Crapper, toilets and what went in them got a new name. Tub baths, however, were still a luxury. By the time the maid schlepped enough hot water upstairs to fill the tub, it was already going cold, and virtually everyone believed exposure to cold could make you sick, if not literally kill you. So sponge-bathing and perfume often ruled the day.
Hair: Blonde was considered the ideal color; lady’s magazines of the time declared blondes were the only true beauties. Red hair was the worst. As someone famously said, referring to a lady as “red-haired” was tantamount to social assassination. A woman with short hair was shocking; a man with long hair, eccentric. By mid-century, going clean-shaven was out of style, so every man wore a beard, or at least “side-whiskers.” (Think Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.)
Vermin: Most people won’t be surprised to hear rats were a big problem in middle and lower class homes. But they were just as common in upper class houses. Sometimes when nursemaids heard the baby crying, they found it bleeding from fresh rat bites.
Coming Out: The phrase meant something different back then. Girls too young for courtship were referred to as “in the schoolroom”; to “come out to society” meant to enter the marriage market. Often these girls were presented to the Queen at St. James — the Victorian equivalent of a Senior Prom spotlight dance. The girls had to make the most of their first season. After two or three “failed seasons” — no engagement — they could be considered an old maid. By the mid-Victorian era, there were approximately 10 single women for every single man (statistics vary, but it was definitely lopsided due to disease, crime, and especially war) so the risk of being left an old maid was quite real.
Professional Mourners: The upper classes wanted everything to look just so. Therefore, a good undertaker offered premium services, including the rental of attractive blonde “mutes” whose only function was to stand prominently by the graveside looking inconsolable. After the service, the female mourners could purchase “tear bottles” to store their tears in and keep as a reminder of the deceased.