From the 21st century perspective, Victorian era may seem a time of good manners, adventure and discovery. But if we take a closer look, this period may become less bright… or even very obscure.
5.1.- The dehumanization of society
Most employment was to be found in the newly industrialized cities, so many people abandoned their rural roots and converged on the urbanized areas to seek work. Large numbers of both skilled and unskilled people were looking for work, so wages were low, barely above subsistence level.
London was not an exception, but the epitome of this situation. As depicted by Charles Dickens, families had to put children to work at an early age, or even turn them out onto the streets to fend for themselves; there were also numerous homeless, destitute children living on the streets of this city. Great wealth and extreme poverty lived side by side because the tenements, slums and rookeries were only stones thrown from the large elegant houses of the rich.
What to say about healthcare. Operations were horrific procedures until 19th century: most patients died from post-operative shock, infection or loss of blood. With protagonists like Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch or Florence Nightingale, this century gave birth to modern medicine, featuring anaesthesia and the development of both antiseptic and aseptic operating theatres among the most powerful new techniques. These advances supposed outstanding changes… for those who could afford them. There is no need to say that ordinary people were not so fortunate.
‘In London, in 1830, the average life span for middle to upper-class males was 44 years, 25 for tradesman and 22 for laborers. Fifty-seven of every 100 children in working class families were dead by five years of age’.
Source: A Victorian Obsession With Death
La fée verte (the green fairy) inspired artists such as Ernest Hemingway, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley and Alfred Jarry. Drugs became both a blessing and a curse.
These substances were essential both for pharmacopedia and for evading such a devastating reality. Opium dens were frequented by those ‘chasing the dragon’; this ‘recreational’ practice was not common in Western countries, but between 150,000 and 200,000 opiate addicts lived in the United States only in the late 19th century. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of these addicts were women (legal opiates were prescribed by physicians and pharmacists to women with ‘female problems’). By 19th century laudanum, an alcoholic herbal preparation containing approximately 10% powdered opium by weight, was among the most effective of available treatments. It was widely prescribed for ailments from colds to meningitis to cardiac diseases, in both adults and children. The Romantic and Victorian eras were marked by the widespread use of laudanum in Europe and the United States.
Opium has gradually been superseded by a variety of purified, semi-synthetic, and synthetic opioids. Morphine sales began in 1827. Heroin, the first semi-synthetic opiate, was first synthesized in 1874, but was not pursued until its rediscovery in 1897; from 1898 to 1910 heroin was marketed as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough medicine for children.
In 1808, Johann Christian Reil coined the term ‘Psychiatry’. In the early 1800’s, Psychiatry made a significant advance in diagnosis of mental illness including mood disorders, in addition to disease level delusion or irrationality. At the turn of the century, England and France combined had only a few hundred individuals in asylums. By the late 1890s and early 1900s, this number had risen to hundreds of thousands. However, the new idea that mental illness could be ameliorated during the mid-nineteenth century turned out to be a disappointment. The average number of patients in asylums in the United States jumped 927%. Numbers were similar in England and Germany. Asylums were once again turning into custodial institutions and the reputation of Psychiatry in the medical world had hit an extreme low.
Violent and invasive psychiatric interventions were indicative of the well-intentioned desire of psychiatrists to find some medical means of alleviating the suffering of the thousands of patients in psychiatric hospitals. It is commonly accepted that the first systematic attempt at human psychosurgery was conducted by the Swiss psychiatrist Gottlieb Burckhardt in the late 1880s.
Women control could be probably considered a mania. Isaac Baker-Brown, a one-time president of the Medical Society of London, began performing clitoridectomies in his London Surgical Home for Women in 1858 (some 25 years before Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the vibrator). The first electromechanical vibrator was used at an asylum in France for the treatment of female hysteria in 1873, making easier the achievement of the ‘hysterical paroxysm’. Female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women. The history of the notion of hysteria can be traced to ancient times and it was widely discussed in the medical literature of the 19th century.
Bonus: Have you watched ‘Hysteria’ (2011)?
But let’s go back to the unfortunate. Henry Mayhew was an investigative journalist who wrote a series of articles for the The Morning Chronicle about the way the poor of London lived and worked. Mayhew’s articles were later published in a book called London Labour and the London Poor, in which introduction he wrote:
‘[…] The condition of a class of people whose misery, ignorance, and vice, amidst all the immense wealth and great knowledge of “the first city in the world”, is, to say the very least, a national disgrace to us’.
The civil parish of Whitechapel in London’s East End, for example, became increasingly overcrowded. Unsustainable working and housing lead to endemic robbery, alcohol dependency drove many women to prostitution. In October 1888, London’s Metropolitan Police Service estimated that there were 1200 prostitutes and about 62 brothels in Whitechapel.
Bonus: Have you watched the French movie ‘House of Tolerance’ (L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close, also known as House of Pleasures, 2011)?
Extensive newspaper coverage bestowed widespread and enduring international notoriety on the never sold grotesque murders of Jack the Ripper.
Bonus: Have you watched ‘From Hell’ (2001)? Because I assume that you have already read the graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell… it is a must!
5.2.- The bizarre
I have previously mentioned Houdini. The Golden Age of Magic started in the second half of the 19th century and continued until the mid-twentieth century. Curiosity boosted initiatives like circus, freakshows and cabinets of curiosities (‘Wunderkammers’). Scams and degradation for profit were in vogue.
5.2.1.- Circus, Freakshows and Human Zoos
As you can read in this article published on the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum, hundreds of circuses were operating in England in the mid 19th century. In fact this kind of shows were so popular that many theatres also presented circus acts.
One of the factors that made circus so popular was that fairground entertainers travelled to their audiences. From the late 18th century circuses toured to even the smallest towns and in the 19th century the development of railways enabled circuses to travel further. The type of tent that we associate with the circus today was first used by American circuses in the 1820s. It was introduced to England by Richard Sands’ American Circus which landed in Liverpool in 1842. By the 1880s Powell Clarke’s Circus boasted a tent which could seat 7,000 spectators. Charlie Keith, famous clown and circus owner, constructed and patented the first portable circus building. In 1882 Keith patented his ‘new travelling building for a circus’, which only featured canvas in its roof. Travelling circus became big business in the 19th century and the larger circuses would announce their arrival in town with a circus parade, becoming a natural advertisement for the circus and attracting huge crowds. Touring circuses in the late 19th century were much grander affairs than they had been when circuses first went on the road one hundred years earlier.
This seems quite idealistic, doesn’t it? There is no doubt that showmen such as Tom Norman or Phineas Taylor Barnum challenged the Victorian concept of enterteinment… for sure. Because circus and sideshows were closely linked.
P. T. Barnum did not enter the circus business until he was 61 years old, when in 1871, in Delavan, Wisconsin he established ‘P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome’, a traveling circus, menagerie and ‘freaks museum’. It went through various names: ‘P.T. Barnum’s Travelling World’s Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show On Earth’, and after an 1881 merger with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson, ‘P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United’, shortened later to ‘Barnum & Bailey’s’. During Barnum and Bailey’s Circus at London’s Olympia, there were at least ten displays including aquatic acts, aerialists, elephants and an equestrian act featuring 70 horses performing in the ring at once. A military band played before the performance, there were races and ballets, a menagerie and a spectacular re-enactment of a famous American sea battle with the Spanish fleet at Santiago. Mr. Barnum purchased Scudder’s American Museum, renaming it and using it as a platform to promote hoaxes and human curiosities such as the ‘Feejee mermaid’ and ‘General Tom Thumb’. ‘Tom Thumb’ was eventually presented to Queen Victoria on two occasions, as she was, herself, a fan of sideshows.
Tom Norman, for its part, was the English counterpart to Barnum. ‘The Silver King’ operated a number of shops in London and Nottingham, and exhibited travelling shows throughout England. His travelling exhibitions featured Eliza Jenkins -‘Skeleton Woman’-, a ‘Balloon Headed Baby’ and a woman who bit off the heads of live rats. Mr. Norman came into contact with Joseph Merrick -the ‘Elephant Man’– in 1884 and exhibited him at his penny gaff shop at 123 Whitechapel Road, directly across the road from the London Hospital.
Sideshows (also called ‘freak shows’) reached maturity as successful commercially run enterprises in the 19th century, both in England and the United States. It became a booming business, as people with physical abnormalities grew into a highly profitable market. By the latter half of the 19th century, London’s West End appeared to be a revolving door of exhibitions featuring freaks and novelty acts. Some shows were regarded as inappropriate for women and children and were categorized as “men only” performances. But, what was exactly a sideshow?
Sideshows contained various forms of entertainment in one evening, focusing on the exhibition of ‘freaks of nature’, this is, biological rarities: people with extraordinary diseases and conditions, intersexuality, unusual physical characteristics… Ten in One shows displayed 10 freaks on a platform in front of an audience, as people slowly walked past them. Every now and then, performers able to shock the audience (fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, magicians, etc.) would be thrown into the mix to give the crowd a brief respite from some of the more unsettling abnormalities they were witnessing. If you think that these old spectacles are gone, perhaps you need to analyze some of the modern ‘reality TV’ programmes…
Were ‘freaks’ mistreated? As Laura Grande states:
‘Freaks were often perceived as apprehensive, docile and unhappy with their lot in life. In many cases during the Victorian era, nothing could be further from the truth. Many defended themselves against their managers, talking back and demanding raises. As early as 1851, it had become popular to sell trading cards of popular freaks throughout England and the US. Profits from these images went straight into the pockets of the performers themselves, as opposed to the showmen. […] It was not uncommon for freaks to be better off, in terms of wealth, than the majority of the public who came to see them perform’.
May freak shows be related to the British ideology and imperial imagery? Perhaps the shows came to represent a national identity, reinforcing the notion of what makes one quintessentially British and what does not?
Bonus.- Have you ever head of human zoos? Human zoos were public exhibits of humans emphasizing the cultural differences between Europeans of Western civilisation and non-European peoples. Exhibitions of ‘exotic populations’ became popular in various countries in the 1870s and human zoos could be found in Paris, Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Milan, New York, and Warsaw with 200,000 to 300,000 visitors attending each exhibition. Living history museums are somewhat reminiscent of human zoos.
5.2.2.- Curio Cabinets
The paradigmatic Wunderkammer (‘Wonder-room’) emerged in the sixteenth century. It was regarded as a microcosm or theater of the world, a memory theater and, at the same time, a symbol of magnificence and power. The most important Wunderkammern, that belonged to aristocrats and royalty, were disassembled little by little, separated into collections of man-made things, which were housed in Kunstkammern (art galleries), and natural things, which were put in curiosity cabinets and designated with the new, ‘scientific’ categorizations. These collections evolved from expressions of wonder to analytical vehicles, early scientific efforts to master and control nature by creating strict taxonomies.
In the 1800s, people who were interested in science and the natural world would have a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ in their homes. These classical cabinets had an educational role, teaching through interaction with rare and unusual specimens from exotic places. There were so many different kinds of things kept in a cabinet of curiosities that people began to need a way to make sense of their collections; through classification, scholars began to develop ideas about the patterns and common features of specimens. Soon, this process of considering classification led scientists to think about how relatedness reflects evolutionary patterns between species. Curio Cabinets are the legitimate precursors of modern museums.
Did you know that some of the best known modern medical collections are the result of the the nineteenth century grotesque cabinets of medical curiosities? Just to put an example among many, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia (USA). Thomas Dent Mütter (1811–1859), an early American pioneer of reconstructive plastic surgery, collected medical oddities, tumors, anatomical and pathological specimens, wet and dry preparations, wax models, plaster casts, and illustrations of medical deformities. Before he passed way, he donated 1,344 items to the American College of Physicians in Philadelphia, along with $30,000 endowment for the maintenance and expansion of his museum.
In the Victorian era men tried to tame nature, but ‘the unkown’ was still out there. As ominous, terrifying and overwhelming as it has always been. The inner strenght of Steamgoth comes from the essence of the Victorian society: alienation, inequality, death, discrimination, superstition, pain, repression. Darkness.