Guys, I am so excited about this topic. I love the Victorian period and there’s so much I want to talk about that I can hardly decide what to discuss. We could spend hours discussing how the bathroom morphed into the room it is today or the innovations that were transforming the way we live. Since we’ve just entered October, which means pumpkin spice and spooky things, let’s talk about all the ways Victorian houses were actively trying to kill its inhabitants.

  1. Wallpaper. Intense color and intricate patterns were all the rage. There was this exhilarating new shade of green, Scheele’s Green, that was all the rage back in the day. This bright and saturated green was used in lots of things, including fabric for fancy dresses, carpet, candles, toys, and wallpapers that adorn your lovely walls. Unfortunately, to make the color, they used arsenic. Symptoms and eventual deaths were similar to cholera. Don’t lick the wallpaper y’all. In fact, it's best not to be around it at all.
    a green swatch called "Scheele's Green"
    Figure 1: Pretty shade of green...too bad it'll kill you and it probably doesn’t taste like snozzberries.


  2.  Bathtubs. Victorians were all about cleanliness. Do you like a warm bath? Cool, so do I and so did Victorians. Before porcelain tubs, bathtubs were made of a variety of materials, metal being one. Victorians had a metal gas heated bathtub which had a convenient little furnace attached to heat your water. You could die of extensive burns caused by the hot water – watch an entire video about it here.
  3. Toilets. Did you know that poop gases can kill you? I’m sure we’ve all smelled a fart that could kill off an entire population. Sewer systems weren’t great so methane gas could collect in the sewer or leak back into the house. This methane gas could cause explosions. Talk about an explosive trip to the bathroom. Let’s all take a moment of silence to appreciate Thomas Crapper’s toilet innovations to stop the toilet from exploding.
    portrait of Thomas Crapper
    Figure 2: We owe him so much. Portrait of Thomas Crapper, populariser of the flush toilet.


  4. Staircases. Even today, stairs are one of the biggest killers found in houses. Back in the day, houses with servant staircases were much steeper with a much shorter tread and may or may not have had a handrail. Today we have lots of codes/regulations that dictate stairs, making them far safer.
    portrait of Peter Nicholson
    Figure 3 This guy, Peter Nicholson (1765-1844), is attributed to simplifying math formulae used in architecture, including stairs. Photo: public domain


  5. Light Fixtures. Specifically, gas light fixtures that came into play towards the end of the Victorian period. Unlike the smell you get from gas stovetops today, the gas being brought into their homes was odorless. A person could easily forget that they had turned on the gas and suffocate. Gas companies also made the argument that gas was healthy and safe to be around an open flame.
  6. Gas central heating. If the steam valve didn’t open, it could explode.
  7. Anything that was “plastic” aka celluloid. Can’t afford the real thing? Just get the celluloid version. It’s just super flammable, so no worries. It can also spontaneously explode. Oh, imagine how much fun billiards was (the billiard balls were made of celluloid).

Quick Facts:

Well known Architect: John Ruskin, “good taste is essentially a moral quality”, William Morris (considered the father of the Arts and Crafts movement)

The Going’s On:

The Industrial Revolution (~1760-1840) was starting to wrap up at the start of the Victorian period. 

In the United States, the Civil War, Gold Rush, and the Trail of Tears would all occur, and Queen Victoria would see the USA go through 17 presidents, starting with Martin Van Buren and ending with William McKinley. Europe would experience the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849) and Jack the Ripper was on his killing spree near the end of the Victorian period. The British empire was the foremost global power and was the largest empire in history for over a century.

Ending Thought

I’ve always found it curious when people wish they lived in a different time period because no. The incredible advances we’ve made in the past two hundred or so years…..Remember, just because you like the fashion, the pretty architectural details, or the restrained manners does not mean you would have enjoyed living in the Victorian era. Life was hard for most people. Danger lurked everywhere including your beloved home. I’m sure that in another 100 years people will look back at our present-day and think how silly we were, how simple and quaint life must have been, and how they too would like to live in the past.

Cheaper, easier, more convenient = inventions that both improve life and can kill you, but the Victorians were so excited by these new items meant to improve their lives, decorate their homes, and show off their moral and class standings, that they forgot to think about or didn’t care about the safety of their products. No need to check out that new horror movie, just watch your favorite Victorian period film and consider all the ways your favorite hero/heroine could perish just hanging about in their own home. Or, if you prefer, here are the documentaries I watched:

Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home (2013), with Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb

New Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home (2013), with Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb

Have Questions? Get In Touch.

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