Living in History: A Critique, Sort of

Sarah Chrisman writes in a September 9, 2015 post that “I love the Victorian era. So I decided to live in it.” (http://www.vox.com/2015/9/9/9275611/victorian-era-life). She, and her compliant husband, live in a house built in 1888. They have an antique ice box, mechanical clocks, and Chrisman writes in her journal with a fountain pen. They sleep in an antique bed with a mattress she stuffed herself. In the kitchen, she makes bread using a Victorian recipe and bubbling sourdough culture, and uses period appliances and tools. Chrisman’s toilette includes bathing with Castile bar soap and using a hairbrush of an antique design, and she bathes in a claw-foot bathtub. They’ve never owned cellphones and Chrisman doesn’t drive. Instead, they ride period bicycles to various locations that Victorian dwellers in the area could have visited.

Like many people who live straddled somewhere between yesterday and today, they started with dressing the part. They already had a passion for history and a professional interest (academic); clothing was the natural progression. Chrisman waxes poetic about wearing her Victorian clothing and models five(!) different outfits in the post and shows several more on her blog. She continues to speak of the increased mindfulness that living the Victorian way brings her. She closes by sharing the “hostilities” she and her husband have received due to their lifestyle choice.

I fully understand how Chrisman feels. I really, really do. However, my first reaction to the post, and a subsequent scan of her blog, was if you are going to live la Vida Victorian, you can’t say you are completely living in the Victorian era and then pick and choose the aspects. For example, Victorian Farm, is a fantastic look at Victorian life on a farm. The lady of the house is working constantly; just the laundry takes her several days. In the BBC series, the 1900 House, they figured out that while the lady of the house couldn’t use tampons/pads, she could hire a maid. In contrast, Chrisman seems to have quite a bit of leisure time on her hands, a mysterious lack of children, and no mention of Victorian feminine hygiene practices; I searched. And she sews by hand. Why? I mean detail work sure, but the entire thing? Sewing machines have been around since the early 19th Century and by 1888 it wasn’t an uncommon appliance in the home. I just read that a German engineer invented a sewing machine, of sorts in 1755, so I can stretch by using a machine on my Robe a La Francaise. Bonus! But she likes it. OK, but then how does she have time to sew and clean and cook? The house is immaculate. Obviously not coal heated. Yes, no coal. Ah-ha!

Chrisman is obviously living the life of a well-off Victorian because I can tell you, life in the city for working class or lower tradesman family is not all bicycle rides through the lavender and diary writing. Many women still couldn’t read or write. It was dirty, unhygienic, and I would have died giving birth to my daughter. That’s right dead. How about this lovely lady who is restoring a Victorian cemetery in New Jersey who picked up pleurisy while exploring a room that had been sealed for 100 years?

Anyway, enough of that. Lovers of history in its domestic application should bond together. It is a shame that Chrisman and her husband seem to get abused for the way they look. I have no idea why the people in her community seem so hostile towards the couple but being Gothic-oriented and looking very unusual from time to time, I understand harassment due to being odd. And I don’t suppose a proper Victorian would tell someone to f-off. I will say this, environment and community are everything; both in past times and today. Philadelphia is a fantastically fun place to get in touch with one’s 18th Century self. We have never been objects of scorn here, even while shopping in Target in full garb. There are places to go where we won’t be alone in our endeavors, events to attend, and other people to socialize with. It is the perfect place to embrace as much history as you’d like.

Period room photography at the Met.I will say this, which is completely unsolicited advice: share the good with the bad. Explain why you don’t adopt certain practices. Those of us who know, are going to search your blog for menstruation and wonder why you aren’t explaining how you deal with your period. Are you using toothpaste? Because I, for one, am not giving up my toothpaste. Four root canals are enough. Why don’t you have kids? Do you use reusable condoms made of animal bladders? People are going to ask, because the less gentile things about history are as equality fascinating as the pretty things. You’re not modest; e.g. bath and corset photos with no chemise, no less. So we want to hear how you live in history and how it’s alike to our own experiences and how it’s different. Do you eat squirrel? I have a fantastic recipe for Brunswick Stew that calls for squirrel meat and if our resident squirrels don’t stop eating my vegetables, I just might use it.

Trust me, I’ve never been sorry about being honest about where I’ve cheated. I have to work full-time, for health benefits, among other things. I don’t have time to sew by hand or cook in my fireplace, although I could. And healthcare… Have you seen a Victorian bleeder? Yeah; it’s fairly horrific. I’ll take modern medicine every day. Seriously, I love my doctor and non-morphine pain medication. I would never give my daughter cocaine-laced cough syrup. The point is, the reasons why we embrace what we do, and what we don’t, are part of the story. Don’t leave them out.

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