The British have a number of sayings that strike listeners of other English-speaking nationalities as odd. “Safe as houses” has always had a curious ring to my American ear, but it turns out to be quite ironic as well: the expression grew popular in the Victorian era, a time when Londoners were as likely to be killed by their own houses as anything else. That, at least, is the impression given by “The Bizarre Ways Victorians Sabotaged Their Own Health & Lives,” the documentary investigation starring historian Suzannah Lipscomb above.
Throughout the second half of the 19th century, many an Englishman would have regarded himself as living at the apex of civilization. He wouldn’t have been wrong, exactly, since that place and time witnessed an unprecedented number of large-scale innovations industrial, scientific, and domestic.
But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and the Victorians’ understanding of their favorite new technologies’ benefits ran considerably ahead of their understanding of the attendant threats. The hazards of the dark satanic mills were comparatively obvious, but even the heights of domestic bliss, as that era conceived of it, could turn deadly.
Speaking with a variety of experts, Lipscomb investigates the dark side of a variety of accoutrements of the Victorian high (or at least comfortably middle-class) life. These harmed not just men but women and children as well: take the breeding-ground of disease that was the infant feeding bottle, or the organ-compressing corset — one of which, adhering to the experiential sensibility of British television, Lipscomb tries on and struggles with herself. Members of the eventual anti-corset revolt included Constance Lloyd, wife of Oscar Wilde, and it is Wilde’s apocryphal final words that come to mind when the video gets into the arsenic content of Victorian wallpaper. “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do,” Wilde is imagined to have said — and as modern science now proves, it could have been more than a matter of taste.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.