Our readers and customers really love Halloween. That is a delight to me, as it is my favorite holiday. I love the chance to dress up, go to parties, and have all sorts of festive fun without all of the pressures associated with the upcoming winter holidays. I also enjoy it because one of my favorite historical periods is the Victorian Era, and they knew how to spook things up!
We are getting things started on the early side this year so I thought I’d kick things off with a post on spooky Victorian traditions and how you can learn more about them. I’d love to hear from you about what you find most interesting and I will cover it in an upcoming post as we count down to Halloween.
Spooky Victorian Traditions 101
Hiring a medium
For various reasons, mediumship and Spiritualism had their HEYDAY in the Victorian Era. Victorians in both England and America were obsessed. Attending seances, hiring mediums, and consulting Spiritualists were mainstream practices for several decades during this time.
Women’s history scholars point to the trend of female mediums entering the field during this time and the opportunities it provided that they would not otherwise have had. Spiritualism gave female mediums the chance to run businesses, earn respect for their spiritual gifts, appear “on stage” in respectable ways, and earn a living. It is a fascinating area of study and one that will provide you with lots of conversation starters this Halloween.
Unobscured Season Two: The History of Spiritualism (podcast episode)
The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism (Smithsonian article)
Victorians were on fire about the new technology of photography. Families and individuals reveled in the opportunity to have an image created of their exact likeness and passed down to prosperity. Photographers and artists loved the malleable nature of light and reveled in experimenting with what could be done with the medium.
19th-century photography was used for various creepy purposes, my favorite being the trend of editing photographs to look like those in the image were headless or that they were holding a decapitated head. Without the novelty of Photoshop, photographers perfected the art to very impressive heights! And the people loved it.
Headless Portraits from the 19th Century (blog post)
Hiring People to Mourn at Funerals
There was a lot of death during Victorian times, and an entire culture was built around how to observe the loss of loved ones. Along with this culture came various industries to support it. One of these was professional mourning. That’s right, some Victorians would pay others to attend the funerals of their loved ones. Not only would they attend, but they would also participate in the mourning and display bereavement. It is apparently a custom that still takes place in parts of India and China today.
What Are Professional Mourners? (educational guide)
I find this fashion trend so unsettling! Victorians took hats to the next level when it came to flare and creativity. This love led to an explosion of demand for plumes and the eventual extinction of numerous species of birds. But did you know that Victorian women also adorned their hats with taxidermy of cats, squirrels, and entire birds? Victorians loved them some preserved animals; I even found a reference and photo of taxidermy hummingbird earrings!
A stuffed cat on top of your head? Sounds about as wrong as a live one doing the same thing. But it happened.
Cats in the Hats: Victorian Era Taxidermy Hats (podcast episode)
Walter Potters Twisted Taxidermy (Vanity Fair article)
I don’t know quite where to start with this terrifying trend. I first became aware of the prevalence of safety coffins in Victorian times while reading Making An Exit by Sarah Murray last year. Apparently, because of a series of cultural phenomena, Victorians became so paranoid about accidentally burying a person who was still alive that they created another death-industry: safety coffins. This is what my worst nightmares are made of!
Safety coffins came in various types of “safety” including a ribbon attached to a bell that the (seemingly) deceased could ring if they in fact regained life or a handle placed in the coffin that attached to a drill, giving the buried individual freedom to escape.
I’ll just leave it at that for now!
People Feared Being Buried Alive so Much They Invented These Special Safety Coffins (Smithsonian article)