The Author of HOW TO BE A VICTORIAN on Hygiene Products, Tea, and Washing Up



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This is a guest post from Ruth Goodman. Ruth is a historian of British social and domestic life, and the author of How to Be a Victorian. She has worked as a consultant for the Victoria and Albert Museum and presented a number of BBC television series, including Victorian Farm, where she lived as a 19th century farmer for a year. She lives in England.


how to be a victorianI am often asked “What do you miss most about modern life when you step back into the nineteenth century?” Many imagine that it will be some form of personal hygiene product or media connectivity (those asking are often journalists). Beyond the medical advances, I find that the trappings of the twenty-first century fall into two categories; those things that you don’t miss until they are gone, and those that you quickly stop missing.

Obviously, modern medicine and dental care are at the very top of the ‘must have’ list. Modern survival rates for everything from childbirth to heart surgery are a delight beyond compare, whilst whole categories of illness have been transformed from life threatening to merely inconvenient. Even the smallest health complaint can overwhelm you if there is no relief and Victorian medicine, for all its ground-breaking discoveries, remained largely ineffective or terrifyingly dangerous in actual practise. “How much opium would you like in your cough medicine, Sir?”

The list of things that I miss begins with water. Most of us would recognise the importance and the life changing nature of clean running water piped into the home, and a little thought is enough to make us all appreciate this aspect of modern living. But have you ever considered the humble plug hole? Try living without one for a while. Every drop of water that is brought in to the house must now be carried back out. Every bowl of washing up water, every bucket of dirty water from the laundry, everything used to clean the people and the spaces they live in has to be collected up and hauled away to be emptied wherever you think best. And you will soon find that that is no simple matter either: regular dumping of waste water causes boggy patches, puddles, and slippery surfaces. How blissfully easy it is to take a plug out of the plug hole and let all that waste water simply drain away, out of sight and out of mind.

I would also like to champion the electric kettle – but then I am British. To be able to flick a switch and be enjoying a nice cup of tea within three minutes at any time of day or night is a luxury that I miss dreadfully. Oh, Victorian tea or coffee can be very nice if you can get the unadulterated pure stuff, but most working class people had to make do with tea padded out with buckthorn leaves dyed with red lead to look like tea leaves or coffee that had never been nearer to a coffee bush than the nearest field of chicory- and you have to plan your work day around the brewing. Fires must be lit and tended and kettles kept topped up. Whenever you are preparing a meal or doing the laundry, there will be no room for the kettle on the fire at all, and you will have to wait. The tea deprivation means that I can get very bad-tempered on laundry day.

And the things that I soon stop missing? Well, all those hygiene products for a start. It can be a bit disconcerting to begin with, but the desire for them soon fades away. Indeed, these days I can almost hear my skin breathing a sigh of relief at being spared the onslaught – I get less headaches and migraines, too. Perfumes really don’t agree with me.

As for the internet, phones, TV, radio and all other forms of modern media, there are withdrawal symptoms. Initially, I have a touch of guilt about being uninformed about world events, and another parcel of guilt about being out of reach of friends, family, and colleagues. It passes. What rises instead is a stronger connection with the here and now, with what is happening at this moment in my life, with the people who are physically present. Perhaps this is my favourite thing about trying to live in the past. It seems paradoxical that living in the past makes me live in the present, but it does. No vicarious life through a screen, but real people to talk to and real things to do.


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