A History of Lost Sensations 4
The painting is Life at the Seaside or Ramsgate Sands by W.P. Frith. By modern standards these seaside tourists of 1853 look horribly uncomfortable because they look horribly over-dressed. That it’s a hot is obvious from the number of parasols. But why, we ask ourselves, the bonnets and shawls, the bowlers and top hats, the neckties and the waistcoats? Why is no-one, apart from the child in the foreground, barefoot? Why is no-one bareheaded? Why are some of the women wearing gloves?
All of which brings me to the fourth and final part of A History of Lost Sensations, namely touch. In previous blogs I have explored some of the ways the Victorian world, the world of Mr Blackwood’s Fabularium, sounded and smelt different from ours. In this blog I want to suggest how it felt different.
The best place to start is clothes. There were no artificial fabrics. Clothes were made of wool, cotton or linen, all of which were heavier than the mixed fabrics we wear today. Radiators weren’t invented until the 1850s and weren’t in widespread use until the end of the century, so houses were cold in winter. People sat by open fires, which meant that they were often scorched on one side and frozen on the other. In the absence of double glazing people minimised draughts with large free-standing screens. The obvious way to keep warm was to wear heavy clothes, both indoors and out.
Woollen fabrics were not just heavy but stiff and prickly. People’s movements were restricted by them, which is why I rarely find television costume dramas convincing. The actors are obviously wearing modern fabrics which allow them to move too freely. Other obstructions to free movement included starched collars for men (their lower jowls must have been permanently sore) and whalebone corsets for women. Long skirts trailed in the mud and to avoid soiling them, Victorian ladies employed crossing sweepers to clear away mud and horse manure when they crossed the road. Shoes had leather soles and uppers, which made them heavier; they also had hobnails to protect the leather soles. Hobnails often pressed upwards through the soles they were designed to protect and gave the wearer blisters.
The more one thinks about it the more one realises that a great deal of Victorian tactile life consisted of low-level pain, irritation and inflammation. Tooth ache was more common. The pressure on the bladder from corsets (and men sometimes wore corsets too) must have mean that women in particular spent a lot of time with their legs crossed. Living in damp houses and sleeping in damp sheets would have increased the chances of rheumatism.