Category: American History

Ether for Every Occasion: Wedding Nights, Frolics, and Flammable Binges

The First Use of Ether in Dental Surgery By Ernest Board, 1846.
(Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0)

Derived from ethyl alcohol, ether was a sweet-smelling, colorless liquid that came into medical prominence in the nineteenth century. When vaporized and inhaled, it produced varying degrees of unconsciousness. First employed as a general anesthetic by American doctors in the 1840s, its popularity quickly spread to Victorian England. But ether wasn’t only used during surgeries. It was also used recreationally, as well as to address myriad calamities of life in ways that ranged from the mundane to the outright creepy.[…]Continue Reading

The Girl with the 19th Century Curl: Hot Tongs, Setting Lotions, and False Hair

Il Bazar, 1869.
(Met Museum)

During much of the 1860s and 1870s, hair arranged in artfully placed curls and ringlets was all the rage. But for ladies with naturally straight hair, those curls weren’t always easy to achieve. Who can forget the scene in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when Jo burns off her sister Meg’s hair with a pair of hot tongs?[…]Continue Reading

Victorian Advice on DIY Christmas Decorations

Hanging the Mistletoe by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1860.
(Private Collection)

For many Victorians, homemade Christmas decorations were far preferable to those bought in a store. Why spend good money on glittery trinkets when you could make something much more meaningful yourself? An article in the 1887 edition of Household Words advocates for doing just that, declaring:[…]Continue Reading

Flattering by Gaslight: Fashion Advice for Nineteenth Century Ladies

The Ball by Julius LeBlanc Stewart, 1885.

The gas-lit ballrooms of the mid- to late nineteenth century weren’t as flattering to some colors as they were to others. For example, the 1897 edition of Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms warns that pale shades of yellow became “muddy in appearance by gaslight,” while shades of rose simply disappeared. Similarly, most shades of purple, as well as darker shades of blues and greens, were known to “lose their brilliance in artificial light.”[…]Continue Reading

A Cure for the Common Victorian Cold

“The abrupt violation of the decencies of social existence is one of the most annoying consequences of coughing and sneezing.” -Western Journal of Medicine and Surgery, 1844.

The Invalid by William Powell Frith, 1890.

The cold that’s going around this season is intense. As of today, I’ve had it for two weeks. Between the coughing, congestion, and laryngitis, it’s been difficult to function. One wonders how our nineteenth century forbears managed in similar circumstances. Did they take to their beds and slowly succumb? Or were there plasters and potions to help them through it? In fact, Victorians had a multitude of (sometimes questionable) medicinals at their disposal.[…]Continue Reading

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