The 19th-century United States can be described by the title of a Clint Eastwood movie: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. But diving between the lines of historical textbooks reveals we need to add three more adjectives to that Eastwood flick: The Weird, The Uncomfortable, and the Dangerous. As the nation took its first steps beyond independence, her citizens faced some daily trials that make modern Americans wonder how anyone back then could have even lasted a day.
Traffic, overcrowding, pollution, construction, and a booming population certainly made for a rough city living experience. But back in the 1800s that was all exacerbated by poor hygiene practices and workers grinding away in filthy factories before there were any labor laws or standards in place..
Kids couldn't catch a break! Lax child labor laws saw kids working seven days a week on farms or in factories, especially during the Industrial Revolution, when cash-holding fat cats realized kids were less likely to organize into unions..
Traveling by horse
People pay about $80 to have a cabby take them around Central Park via horseback for 45 minutes without learning the realities of 19th-century travel: horses pooped everywhere, requiring rich people to wear raised shoes so they didn't "sink in.".
A lot more fires
Industrial Revolutions saw cities expand at unprecedented rates, which meant engineers didn't get a chance to study what to do and what not to do. Buildings and neighborhoods didn't meet any fire codes, and rudimentary firefighting tech limited meaningful responses to any raging blazes..
The burning of the White House
Britain was mad about losing control of the United States, so the nation returned in 1812 to sort out some details — with violence. But after taking Washington D.C.
and burning down the White House, the campaign ended with a treaty. Britain needed to focus war efforts on Napoleon.
Diseases and epidemics
Infectious outbreaks were so prevalant that there's a Wikipedia page just for "Diseases and epidemics of the 19th century." Cholera was new to the scene, and people constantly battled smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, and tuberculosis..
Blame it on old-timey medical knowledge, crippling poverty, or a number of other factors, but in the 19th century, about 40 percent of kids — according to Our World in Data — perished before making it to age five..
Surviving a day in the 19th century was a bit like dodging traffic, and cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, bad diets, and lacking medical knowledge were the cars speeding down the highway. Data is skewed (because of the infant mortality rate), but the average life span was about 41 years..
You thought your mother-in-law taking photos at the family picnic was a bit annoying? Well, in the 1800s, people often posed for pictures with the propped-up bodies of their newly deceased relatives. It was, after all, the last chance to get a photo to remember them by..
Fighting each other
In the 19th century, the United States fought in over 60 wars. Maybe the nation just wanted to beat its chest after thwarting those dastardly red coats in the Revolution? The Civil War alone saw between 650,000 and 1,000,000 deaths..
Traveling wasn't easy, so 19th-century country folks didn't see too many people outside of their local community. Storms could wreck harvests and ruin livelihoods in a heartbeat, and illnesses and injuries were hard to treat with medical care often far away..
At first an innocent game, boys asked girls for their hairpins — a token of a successful flirt. But then the challenge evolved into snagging the pins without the girls knowing.
"I know fellows who have followed a girl for squares," one man told the local paper.
All of the flower petals and perfumes in the world couldn't mask a 19th-century musk. The stink of the day really sank in, since tooth brushing wasn't happening frequently yet, soap wasn't a household item, and baths were maybe a weekly thing..
In the late century, riding in a car was just a cool thing for rich people to do. An 1899 newspaper article out of the Kansas's Daily Monitor, debated what to call the fad, writing "society is wondering over tea cups as to whether it shall go 'automobiling,' 'autoing,' or 'biling.'".
In the 19th-century, lobster was a food for the poor. The crustacean came out of the ocean by the basket full, and early Americans hadn't discovered pouring butter on everything yet.
Servants needed clauses in their contracts that prevented lobster dinners more than 3 times per week.
"The idea is this," one New York City newspaper reported of the "ring turning" trend. "If a young lady meets a young man with a ring on his finger, she is to turn the ring two or three times." Some establishments had to put out signs banning the practice..
Notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes built a hotel so he could, well, serially kill people.
He soundproofed bedrooms, loaded the place with trap doors, and included two incinerators for body disposal.
There's a reason you've never heard a friend long for "the good ol' days of 19th-century medicine." Patients were dosed with alcohol, morphine — which was commercially produced by mid-century, and things like "Fruit Salt." Ailments like asthma were treated with heroin. .
Victorian athletes were known to drink strychnine and chew on coca leaves for a performance-enhancing boost. While it's not clear if they were technically cheating, their bodies probably didn't appreciate the habit!.
During the Victorian era, women wanted to make sure they looked their best. While there's nothing wrong with that, their makeup could literally kill them! Cosmetics of the day were made with things like lead, mercury, and arsenic..
A painful price
As if those cosmetics weren't bad enough, Victorian women also used corsets to cinch their waists into impossibly tiny sizes! Unsurprisingly, these body crushing garments could result in breathing issues and displaced organs..
Carrying a crinoline
That tiny waist was often complimented by a crinoline, a series of hoops worn to give a woman's skirt the perfect shape. This size, however, could be a hazard.
Beyond the obvious movement problems — you try fitting through a door wearing a crinoline! — women also ran into trouble with candles. It was all too easy to brush against an open flame and find things getting a bit toasty!
Fine feathered fashion
Feathered hats were also all the rage during Victorian times; they caused problems, too — though not for the wearer. Countless species of birds went extinct as hunters sought out the perfect accessories..
Birds weren't the only creatures who died for the sake of style. Victorian women would also kill — and wear — beetles, butterflies, and other insects to enhance their formalwear..
Black wasn't just for style
Victorians frequently wore black — and that wasn't just because it was fashionable. In those days, cities were filled with coal dust and all sorts of dirt: white clothes would have become soiled in the blink of an eye!.
Getting all dressed up in your finery wasn't only for the living, either. Victorians would take photographs of their recently deceased family members; sometimes, they'd pose alongside the body, too!.
Speaking of death, no one wants to be buried alive, right? The Victorians had the perfect solution. "Safety coffins" featured bells, buzzers, and other ways for you to signal to the surface if you found yourself trapped inside..
Mortsafes, however, served the opposite purpose. These devices, which could range from iron coffins to above-ground cages, were designed to keep the dearly departed safe inside.
Safe from what, though?
Well, while Victorians followed a pretty strict code of etiquette, the era was also rife with grave robbers! These unsavory fellows would steal freshly buried bodies and use them to turn a profit..
Make a date with a mummy
A different type of body snatching also became popular in the Victorian era. British explorers brought plenty of mummies back to Europe — there are even stories of upper-class "unwrapping parties," though it's not clear if those actually happened..
Even if there weren't any ancient bodies on display, Victorian celebrations could still get pretty weird. One party game, called snap dragon, challenged guests to grab flaming raisins from a dish of alcohol and eat them!.
Hope you like calf head
If flaming raisins weren't your speed, the Victorian era also had plenty of other delicacies that were also rather... questionable.
Mock turtle soup, for example, sometimes replaced the reptile with calf heads, skin, brains, and all.
The cheapest meat
Things were even worse for the lower class, though. While meat could be pretty expensive, broxy was always affordable.
There was a catch, though: broxy was meat from animals that died from diseases rather than slaughter.
If you got sick from eating old meat, medical treatment might not automatically cure you. Electrotherapy was thought to solve a variety of problems, though the practice usually caused more discomfort and scarring than anything else..
Blood sucking beasts
There were also plenty of leeches used during the Victorian era, which wasn't fun for anyone involved. These creepy-crawlies would attach to a patient's skin and theoretically draw "bad humors" out, bringing the body into balance..
Things weren't much easier for the women working in the Victorian era as maids and other servants. While any work was better than heading to the poorhouse, working in a manor wasn't exactly a life of luxury....
“In 1851, one in three women between the ages of 15 and 24 in London worked as a domestic servant,” according to Judith Flanders’ book Inside The Victorian Home. As it turns out, factories weren’t actually the most dangerous place for a woman to work: Houses were. .
You’ve heard of the unhygienic practices of Victorian England, but it was the housemaid who had to clean up the worst messes. Kitchens and sculleries (a room attached to the kitchen where you washed clothes and dishes) were the worst offenders..
Food scraps and dirt
Despite being rooms where so much cleaning went on, kitchens and sculleries were particularly disgusting. In the maids’ haste to get meals on the table, scraps of food and mud and whatever else was on someone’s plate or shirt would literally fall through the cracks. .
The reason maids couldn’t keep up with the messes caused by cleaning is because they were too busy attending to one of the biggest problems of the era: bugs. Where there was a scrap of food, there was an insect and his entire creepy crew crawling in to claim it..
A "living carpet" of bugs
The Victorian bug problem was so bad, it’s legendary. Apparently the “kitchen floor at night palpitate[d] with a living carpet” of bugs, mainly cockroaches.
Just when the maids thought they’d cleared all the roaches off the floor, though, they’d look up at the ceiling.
Floors "heaved with cockroaches"
Just as common as roaches on the floor were beetles on the ceiling. Bugs were so prevalent that they practically cohabitated with the servants.
Author Beatrix Potter once observed that servants “had to sit on the kitchen table, as the floor heaved with cockroaches.”
There were so many bugs that maids didn’t have time to bother with the other unwelcome creatures scurrying around the home. Rats may be notorious carriers of disease and other unsavory things, but at least they knew how to stay out of the way..
Work, work, work
And that’s what servants battled the most: Time. They couldn’t get rid of the rats because their strict schedules didn’t allow for any deviation from the plan.
The working hours for the average maid weren’t only exhausting — they were unrelenting.
Demanding physical labor
There were days when housemaids worked from 6 AM to midnight, and unlike factory workers, they worked 7 days a week. Contrary to popular belief, a maid did more than fold linens and wash clothing.
Her life was filled with demanding physical labor...
Early morning chores
The average servant’s morning always began the same way: by opening every curtain and window shutter, cleaning and lighting every fireplace in the house, and dusting everything from furniture to staircases to walls, all before the sun came up..
She’d then scatter tea leaves over the carpets (a method of concealing odors) before sweeping them up while she swept the rest of the house. She’d beat the rugs, which collected crazy amounts of dirt in just one or two days time..
Next came the floors, and since maids in 1851 didn’t have Swiffers, they had to clean them the old-fashioned way: on their hands and knees, with a dirty rag and a bucket filled with soapy water, Cinderella-style..
A Cinderella story
As if the maids weren’t embodying Cinderella enough, they'd have to empty the fireplaces of cinders, which usually ended with them covered in soot. But there was never any time to change their clothes — by then, it was time to wake up the rest of the house..
They lived to work
Pile on the meals, the laundry, the vermin, the constant visitors tramping muck and who-knows-what-else into the house, and we wonder how maids ever had any time for themselves...which was part of the problem..
Facing their employer's wrath
There was barely any time for the maids to eat, sleep, or clean their own rooms because they had to keep the entire household afloat. What was worse than an all-nighter or a meal of bread and cold meat, though, was the wrath of the employer..
Since servants were largely relegated to the status of the rats they chased, Victorian employers had no problem punishing them harshly if anything was done incorrectly. A maid couldn’t take a moment to rest or eat, or she’d have to answer to her employer..
Maids dared to dream...
Servants endured all kinds of violence from their employers, and had no choice but to deal with it or they'd lose their jobs. But over time, servants started to hear a compelling rumor, one that made them rethink their vocation altogether..
Escape to factories
Ebenezer Scrooge may have valued cruelty, but it soon became clear to other Victorian-era employers that this strategy wasn’t working. Households were losing servants left and right, and all because the factories were promising better hours, better pay, and most importantly, better treatment..
Servants on strike
One Victorian employer summed up the small-scale revolution when he commented that “it was now necessary...to allow their maids to go to bed at ten o’clock every night, and to give them an afternoon out every other Sunday, or no servant would stay.”.
Finally being respected
Both factory and domestic work was back-breaking for women during England’s Industrial Revolution. But factory work sometimes offered women something they hardly ever got as servants: dignity.
And to many women, that made all the difference.