Many inventions of the Victorian era ushered in the modern life that we recognise and enjoy today. The Industrial Age brought us factory production lines, train travel, photography and home electricity along with the forerunners of telephone communication and the movies. However, when it comes to popular Victorian hobbies, a lot of them have not survived into the 21st century. It’s certainly true that, during this era of time, people had some funny ideas about propriety and politeness, but they also had some very odd pastimes. Read on to find out more about the strange and unusual activities that normal Victorians got up to in their leisure time.
Swimming… Fully Clothed
Looking at a Victorian bathing costume today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was just an ordinary, though strangely put together, outfit, rather than something designed for swimming in. In the mid-19th century, women’s bathing suits mostly consisted of loose ankle-length trousers, with a heavy flannel dress worn over the top and covering the body to the knee. Not only were these outfits cumbersome, but they also inhibited any meaningful swimming as they weighed down the wearer and tended to balloon out underwater. By the 1890s, fashions had relaxed a little, with women now wearing knee-length woollen dresses, complete with ‘bathing stockings’, slippers and caps. It all looks very odd to a modern viewer (and certainly not practical), but was considered daring and stylish during Victorian times.
Picnicking… in the Cemetery
That’s right, the Victorian obsession with all things morbid and gothic led to a trend in cemetery picnicking. From 1861 the entire country went into mourning after the death of Prince Albert, and hence even merrymaking turned to the subject of the deceased. To be fair, Victorian-built cemeteries were spacious, well maintained affairs and offered respite from the bustling, filthy streets of the city. This may have been one of the only places to get a breath of fresh air, and so the idea of dining in a cemetery is not as strange as it first appears. It was a mark of respect to dead relatives to spend time by their graveside, enjoying socialisation with friends and relatives, and bringing the joy of the living into their quiet world.
Gaming… at the Club
Alright, so this one isn’t actually as strange as it seems. By ‘club’, we mean a gentleman’s club where the upper classes would go to relax, read the newspaper, perhaps enjoy a homecooked meal and converse with their peers. We are not talking about an inner-city dance club, complete with DJ, pulsing house music and 2-for-1 offers on alcopops. Gaming was a popular pastime in these places as card games like poker, blackjack and whist were easy to set up and provided ample entertainment for both participants and their audience alike. Whereas now we’d turn to platforms like Cardgames or Pokerstarscasino to play, Victorian options were limited to games that could be played using physical paraphernalia like dice, cards, roulette wheels and gaming tables.
Talking… with the Dead
Back to that Victorian obsession with death and we find the absurdly popular pastime of hosting séances and consulting mediums. Along with the youthful departure of Prince Albert, death was a mainstay of Victorian life due to poor sanitation, overcrowding and appalling working conditions. Therefore, it seems only natural that people were obsessed with talking about it and with contacting the dead. There’s no saying whether or not genuine mediums existed within the landscape of charlatans and accomplished actors, but one thing that is for certain is that this phenomenon gripped everybody from the upper classes to the poorest of the poor. It’s no coincidence that the Victorian era was also the period when ghost stories and penny dreadfuls became commonplace, or that this is when crime novels and mystery stories saw a boom in popularity too. People weren’t too fussed about whether it was real or not; they found comfort in the idea, rather than the reality.
Embroidery… with Human Hair
If you weren’t able to attend regular picnics by the graveside of your dead relative, then you may have been interested in carrying a piece of them with you at all times… literally. The Victorian art of making jewellery from a loved one’s hair was a popular one, with the most intricate and detailed pieces fetching the highest prices. This is yet another trend started by Queen Victoria when her beloved Albert passed, but one which was quickly taken up by her subjects as they mourning the departure of their own loved ones. This was just one way in which the Victorians turned mourning into an artform, with many pieces, including brooches, necklaces, hairpieces and more, surviving to this day due to the care and skill with which they were made. Touching, if slightly creepy, tributes to the love felt for friends and family.