How Victorian Homes Turned Deadly: Exploding Stoves, Poison Wallpaper, Ever-Tighter Corsets & More

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A 108-Year-Old Woman Recalls What It Was Like to Be a Woman in Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land

The Col­or That May Have Killed Napoleon: Scheele’s Green

The 1855 Map That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Dis­ease Pre­ven­tion & Data Visu­al­iza­tion: Dis­cov­er John Snow’s Broad Street Pump Map

Hand-Col­ored Maps of Wealth & Pover­ty in Vic­to­ri­an Lon­don: Explore a New Inter­ac­tive Edi­tion of Charles Booth’s His­toric Work of Social Car­tog­ra­phy (1889)

Poignant and Unset­tling Post-Mortem Fam­i­ly Por­traits from the 19th Cen­tu­ry

Behold the Steam­punk Home Exer­cise Machines from the Vic­to­ri­an Age

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.

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