Saturday, May 21, 2005

"Inside The Victorian Home: A Portrait of Victorian Life in Victorian England," by Judith Flanders

"Inside The Victorian Home" focuses on Victorian life in middle class homes, and is structured by describing activities on a room-by-room basis. The work of servants is covered as well--not the teams of servants required to maintain a stately home, but the labors of a "maid of all work" in homes which could afford no more than one servant to help the mistress.

My comments here are largely on aspects of hygiene, health, science, and medicine, as those are the topics that particularly interest me. But the book also contains much information of interest on social mores and customs--marriage, mourning, child raising, social activities, and so on. The book is a great reference for writers interested in details of daily life for families of that era.


An emphasis on classification and record keeping was popular in all walks from household accounts to the Linnaean taxonomy (brought to London in 1790s). The register of births, deaths and marriages was set up in 1837. The census was instituted. The British museum began to create a catalog of all its collections.

In 1840, Sir Roland Hill pushed through establishment of the penny post. For the first time, letters were stamped or franked at the time of posting. Previously, postage had been paid by the recipient and varied with the weight of the post and distance carried.

Disease and medicine

Doctors preferred patients to be ignorant of medicine, as it rendered them more compliant.

Understanding of disease transmission, a drop in the real price of food, and (most importantly) improvements in sanitation led to a drop in childhood mortality. As late as 1899 more than 16% of children did not survive to their first birthday. By the time they reached age 5, 35 out of every 45 19th century children had survived smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, typhus, or enteric fever. Illnesses such as chicken pox and mumps were more dangerous than today, because of the drugs used to treat them. With the development of germ theory it became possible to differentiate between various diseases, but not necessarily to cure them.

Sometimes the medicines were worse than the illnesses. The ever-popular ipecac (a powdered root inducing vomiting) and calomel (a purgative consisting made of mercury chloride). Patent medicines such as "J. Collis Browne's Chlolodyne" contained not only opium, but also chloral hydrate and cannabis. Beecham's pills contained only aloes (a purgative) ginger and soap. But they were sold as a cure all for everything from scurvy to bad dreams.

There is one theory that Charles Darwin suffered from chronic arsenic poisoning due to the "Fowler's solution" he took to help his chronic dyspepsia.

Morphine, quinine, atropine, codeine, and iodine were isolated or discovered during the early part of the 19th century. Beginning in the 1820s, salicylic acid was produced from salicin, itself derived from willow bark. It was used to treat rheumatic fever and rheumatism. The synthetic version was produced by Bayer laboratories in 1897 and sold as aspirin from 1899 on. At the same time, Bayer was working on another promising discovery: a cough syrup made from the newly synthesized diacetylmorphine, sold under the brand name "heroin."

Household hazards

Painted walls were usually primed with two coats of lead paint: one red and one white. The topcoat was also mixed in a base of white lead. "Painters' colic" was a type of paralysis, when wet paint was absorbed through the skin. Many wallpapers were also dangerous, having colors made from poisonous materials. For example: green, lilac, pinks, some blues, and "French gray" had an arsenic base. In some wallpapers, concentrations of arsenious acid were as high as 59%. Vermillion was adulterated with red lead. Many other countries had banned these papers, but in the late 1880's they were still commonly used in Britain.

Clothing was also likely to be impregnated with arsenic.


The ideal in house design and use was for each room to have a distinct and separate purpose. Regularity of form was important--regularity and conformity were equated with respectability. The "pattern-book" house had a basement (with kitchen, scullery, and possibly breakfast room), ground floor* (dining room, morning room), first floor (drawing room), second floor (master bedroom, dressing room, second bedroom), half-landing (bathroom), top floor (2 or 3 bedrooms for servants and children).

*would be the first floor in American houses.


The closed range - the first improvement on cooking over an open fire appeared at the beginning of the 19th century but was not commonly in use for decades. Fueled by coke, for the first time, the ability to bake at home and have a continuous supply of hot water was available to the average (upper middle class, at least) person.

Of course the coal-fired ranges and fires were responsible for incredible dirt and dust as well as the famous London pea soup fogs.

Girls and women

At all social levels, girls were deliberately under-educated and expected to be subordinate to their brothers as well as their father. As women, they were expected to run a household, with or without servants, to perfection. Cleanliness and thrift were equated to virtue.

Women were expected to act as nurses for family members, but male doctors were beginning to take over in previously female roles such as childbirth attendant. Just as women were the nurses in the home, they also were subject to more illnesses than were men of the time. To some extent the causes were physical. For example, girls were often deliberately given protein-deficient diets, which was supposed alleviate symptoms of puberty. Also, women spent more time exposed to the indoor pollution of gas, coal dust, and toxic chemicals. They got little exercise and were compelled to wear constricting clothing (which limited the exercise they could take).

A state of illness or invalidism, however, also served as something of a welcome retreat from the demands of daily life. Invalids were waited on, cared for, and treated kindly in the home. For many women, a "sick headache" was the only way they could get a break and some privacy.