Those Wacky Victorians

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Those Wacky Victorians

Any historian will tell you not to judge the people of the past too harshly.  It takes some effort not to judge the culture of the Victorian era though. (At least how it was in Europe and the U.S.) Yes, the Victorian era saw incredible leaps forward in city life, science and culture, but a culture can't progress without making some pretty strange wrong turns. It's all so adorable, and WEIRD, that it's difficult not to laugh at them a bit. We should also keep in mind that in a lot of ways, we aren't much better.  So, in order to have fun with them (and I really want to do that) I'm also going to include a little related tidbit about modern times lest we forget about our own mistakes. 
  Let's start out with the one fact that is repeated ad nauseam throughout these books: Victorian London was disgusting. Dirty air, filthy water and people living on top of each other. Also, you don't even want to know what is in "London fog.")  Dirty Old London is about how Londoners fought back using some ingenious solutions (before then eventually settling on a better sewer system). Most messed up part: Some streets hired people to just "keep out the riff-raff" which basically meant "keep out people who are likely to urinate on our street." However: Before we start patting ourselves on the back about how great modern sanitation is, Flint, MI would like a word regarding unclean water.  
 
Unmentionable: the Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill
Women in the Victorian era had it rough. Yes, yes the clothes were beautiful.  Not disputing that.  Everything else though? Nightmare. Therese Oneill compiles some of the worst Victorian era advice for women in Unmentionable.  Are you looking for a book where Victorian dudes with no medical training tell you all about your body and how it's basically wrong? This is the book for you.  If you can keep yourself from getting too mad at the appalling advice that was given to our sisters of yesteryear, Unmentionable is pretty funny. Most messed up fact: "Many of the irregularities of menstruation in single women such as scanty or absent, painful and profuse menstruation...are often cured by marriage, and are in such cases nature's sign to a woman that she is not leading a natural life." However: Misleading and dangerous advice about women's health? GOOP has got you covered

Ungovernable : the Victorian Parent's Guide to Raising Flawless Children by Therese Oneill
Victorian England and the US were especially hard on children. Almost 50% of children died before the age of 5. It's easy to see why prospective parents would want to do everything just right to make sure their children had a fair shot in the world. They just got some really bad advice from "experts." Like her other book Unmentionable, Ungovernable compiles some of the worst advice from the Victorian era, this time focusing on the criminally bad advice given to parents and parents to be.  Most messed up fact: Parents were advised to give babies alcohol for basically any ailment. However: I don't think that history is going to look too kindly on the anti-vaccination movement.  (Bonus recommendation: The Panic Virus: a True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear by Seth Mnookin.)
 
The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
So, building off of the world of Dirty Old London (reminder: Victorian London = gross) it is really no wonder that a horrible cholera epidemic sprang up in London's destitute Soho district.  The prevailing thinking of the time was that disease came from the air (which make intuitive sense since Victorian London was smelly.)  It took the methodical thinking of physician John Snow to connect the epidemic to a single well that was contaminated with a baby's diaper. Eventually the well was shut down, and lo and behold the cholera epidemic went away.  Frustratingly, it took the medical establishment much longer to move on from the "bad air" theory.  Be prepared for a lot of frustration with this book. Messed up fact: Apparently the water that was just teeming with cholera bacteria was fantastic:

"The Broad Street Pump had long enjoyed a reputation as a reliable source of clean well water.  It extended twenty-five feet below the surface of the street, reaching down past the ten feet of accumulated rubbish and debris that artificially elevated most of London, through a bed of gravel that stretched all the way to Hyde Park, down to the veins of sand and clay saturated with groundwater.  Many Soho residents who lived closer to other pumps- one on Rupert Street and another on Little Marlborough- opted to walk an extra few blocks for the refreshing taste of Broad Street’s water.  It was colder than the water found at the rival pumps; it had a pleasant hint of carbonation.  For these reasons, the Broad Street water insinuated itself into a complex web of local drinking habits.  The coffeehouse down the street brewed its coffee with pump water; many little shops in the neighborhood sold a confection they called “sherbet,” a mixture of effervescent powder with Broad Street water.  The pubs of Golden Square diluted their spirits with pump water." However: Anyone who lived in America in the early days of AIDS are familiar with how misinformation and stubborn adherence to established scientific theories  (Bonus recommendation: And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts.)
 
Other Powers: the Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith
Victoria Woodhull (first female candidate for president and overall fascinating person) first made her name in the Spiritualist movement of the 1860's as a clairvoyant and a "healer." Barbara Goldsmith's Woodhull biography has many chapters devoted to the emergence of the Spiritualist movement in America.  Spiritualism is basically the belief that the spirits of the dead are all around us and we can communicate with them. If you read a lot of historical fiction set in the Victorian era, seances, ghosts and "spiritualism" comes up a lot. (Off the top of my head: Affinity by Sarah Waters, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and Possession by A.S. Byatt.) If you want to read more about the popularity of the Spiritualist movement this is the place to start. Messed up fact: 
"Religion, sex and the role of women were being reshaped by forces and theories that seem mysterious and difficult to comprehend.  Perhaps the strangest synthesis of these elements was to be found in a so-called machine built in 1853 by a Spiritualist and trance medium, John Murray Spear.  With “spirit guidance,” Spear constructed a contraption of zinc batteries, metal balls, and thousands of copper wires, encased in a wooden frame.  He named it the New Motor.  The purpose if this machine was as vague as the man himself, but he claimed that it not only harnessed spiritual electricity but also housed an as-yet-unborn soul." However: Victoria Woodhull isn't even the ONLY woman with unconventional spiritual beliefs to run for president, she was just the first (and the best).