Victorians and Death: A Period of Morbid Curiosity

Categories: Environmental Issues

When reading about the Victorian era, there are many significant events, scientific discoveries and social morality that shaped the period to what know of today. One of the key themes that is associated with the Victorians is death. Death was everywhere, a common event in the typical household that completely shaped how they lived. It was no longer a private affair but a public event. But why did the Victorians obsess with the notion of death? Why was it so prominent in their lives that they couldn’t escape it? From the bad designs that lead to peoples death, to the birth of the modern funeral and to their curiosity on the subject; how did it come to be?
The Victorian era, a period between 1837 and 1901, was an era that saw the shift to modernism in our history.

During the reign of Queen Victoria in England, we saw the creation of public transport in the form of steam locomotive.The first modern line being the track from London to Birmingham in 1838.

The great Exhibition opened its doors in 1845 in the Crystal Palace, which showcased new technology and designs from around the world for everyone to see. Many great scientific discoveries were made during this era for example; Charles Darwin and his theories of evolution in his book, On the Origin of Species. The discovery of anaesthesia, antisepsis and the invention of x-rays was a revolutionary moment in medical history. With all of that and along with the boom of manufactured products after the industrial revolution, created a new way of living and thinking that wasn’t truly seen outside the elites and upper-class citizens of past eras.

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The rise of middle class in society meant that people now had money to spend on travel and luxurious items that hold no other purpose but to decorate the home. They had the means to finally live a more comfortable life then they have ever had before. Though with the rise of their quality of life in the form of comfort, it didn’t truly create a safe environment.
From the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution that began in the early 18th century, brought in a profligately of goods that the middle class and above bought in great consumption. From garnets in new colours, decorative china, toys for children as well as furniture. All of which was proudly displayed in every middle-classed and upper-classed homes. The cost of goods and necessities dropped drastically due to the introduction to manufactories, and along with the Great Exhibition which showcased the latest designs in consumer goods and inventions, inspired the Victorians to fill their homes with the most desired objects. Though there was an overabundance of goods, the Victorian’s were quick to follow the many household books and magazines that went into detail on what was and wasn’t tasteful. In the documentary, Unbelievable ways the Victorian caused their own deaths, John Ruskin, who was the leading art critic in the Victorian era, was quoted saying “Good taste is essentially a moral quality. What we like determines what we are, teach taste is inevitably to form character.” This put a pressure on the Victorian household to follow these guides on what was deemed good design, but one of these design features that they were.

Green was classed as a sophisticated and desired colour, which was used in various household items like carpet, toys, wallpaper and many others. One of these commonly used green pigment was called Scheele’s green, also known as emerald green, which was discovered by Swedish Chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele. The problem with this pigment is that it’s made from a “synthetic compound of copper and arsenic,” which were quite cheap at the time. We know today that arsenic is a dangerous and lethal substance, but in the Victorian era, they had little knowledge on just how toxic it really was. It didn’t help that “the symptoms of arsenic poisoning were very similar to cholera, which had been rampant in Britain in living memory.” As more and more articles started popping up in the newspapers across England, discussing in great detail the many deaths that happened during this time. After a while, the Victorians started to suspect the cause of people’s illness and eventual death was in fact the wallpapers, as many fell ill when sitting inside these damp green-wallpapered rooms. There was even a case of a young child who died after ingesting a piece of emerald green wallpaper.
As the number of similar cases rose, not much was done by the companies that used the toxic pigments. Arsenic was cheap, and having to change their designs to fit new duller colours would rise the cost of production, thus having to rise the selling price. One of the biggest and well known designer of the Victorian era was William Morris who created the arts and craft movement. He used a large amount of arsenic in many of the wallpapers he designed and when the concerns began to rise on the use of arsenic on consumer products, he out right denied the links to the many deaths being the cause of arsenic in the dye, calling those that accuse it as being “bitten by witch fever.”
In the Journal Article, How green was my Valance?, P.W.J Bartrip estimates that in 1858 there could well be around 100 million square miles of arsenical wallpaper in the homes of the English Victorian, and has noted that you could find such wallpapers in schools, hospitals, restaurants and other public buildings. It wasn’t just wallpapers that had arsenic in it, children’s toys were also coloured using arsenic laced paints, toys that no doubt been gnawed on by young children and infants. Dresses were also dyed using the pigment, causing serious irritations. In 1862, there was a report of a woman who died from arsenic poisoning due to sucking on an artificial grape that was coloured using the Scheele’s green.
Nothing was done about these cases until 1879 when Queen Victoria herself had a visiting dignitary collapse due to the green wallpaper that adorned the guest bedroom. It was reported that she had ordered that all green coloured wallpapers were to be torn down in Buckingham Palace. Yet no law was passed on regulating the use of arsenic in wallpaper and other consumer products in England till much later, but a change did happen. The Victorians, imitating the Queen’s action, stopped buying green wallpaper or any that were known to be arsenic laced. Due to the loss of revenues, companies were forced to change their products. Removing the toxic poison from their manufactured goods and began to advertise their wallpapers as arsenic-free. This began the change of how products were designed.
Death is unavoidable and in the Victorian era it was a daily occurrence. With the poorly designed products of the era and to the environmental issues that accrued it was of common belief that those living in urban areas died quite early in their lives. It is said that out of hundred children in working class families in the Victorian era, fifty-seven of them died by the age of five. The concept of the modern funeral we know of today stemmed from the traditions first developed in the Victorian era. Losing someone of a young age was a tragedy and an event that the Victorians believed that needed to be seen. The more grand-scale the funeral was, showed your neighbours that you were in deep mourning. It was seen as such an important social practice that many poor families would begin saving what little money they had for the cost of one or more funerals of their children. Many of these families went without necessities such as clothing, shelter and more importantly food just to try and cover the cost of the event. The idea of having a proper funeral was for them a social importance’s. There was almost a genuine fear of them having a loved one endure what was called a pauper’s funeral, which was a funeral that the local Poor Union provide to the families who couldn’t afford a funeral. Being buried in a pauper’s grave became a distressing concept to the Victorians that they were willing to forgo the necessaires to survive just to die.

One of the biggest parts of a funeral from the Victorian period was the mourning dresses. Queen Victoria created some of the key factors in the tradition when her husband, Prince Albert died in 1861. Where she was in deep mourning and feel into a depressed state, isolating herself from the public for many years. She continued to wear a mourning dress for forty years till her death in 1901. For a Victorian woman, if her husband or child dies she was to wear the mourning dresses for up to three years, where her only social interaction was  Our Celebrities, A portrait gallery, Queen Victoria, 1888, London, J. Walery, Louis Engel

There was various stages of mourning for a woman, the first stage being the more extreme. Women were meant to show no other emotion but grief and their dresses represented that. The first mourning bombazine crepe dresses were cumbersome and heavy, designed to represent a deep despair. There was minimum details on the garnet and the material was dyed to be the blackest of black. These dresses wasn’t designed for comfort as a women in mourning was meant to endure the hardship of losing a loved one.

Another aspect of the Victorian mourning was the craft of Memento Mori. Memento Mori comes from the Latin phrase, ’remember you must die.’ It is a name given to artworks and imagery which has symbolic images of death. In the Victorian era, the more commonplace of a Memento Mori within the concept of funerals and loss being the Post-mortem photography. There are many myths and speculation around post-mortem photography, but one thing is for sure was that it was quite popular among the Victorian. The first successful photograph was created around 1826 by Nicéphore Niépce using a camera obscura fitted with a pewter plate. Photography rose in popularity quite quickly and in the mid-1800s the prices of photographs dropped after a new and cheaper method was found by Frederick Scott Archer called the wet collodion process. Thought those who were of middle and upper class could CITATION Nat16 \l 2057 (Scotland 2016)afford to take as many photographs as they pleased but those from lower class still could barely afford one. Which led to poor families only hiring a photographer for a funeral of a loved one. As morbid as it is seen in today’s society, one has to understand that photographing a loved one who has recently passed away was the only way to capture and immortalize a family member’s features for many Victorians. It was their last chance.

Though when researching about these photographs, it is important to note that due to the unnerving nature of post-mortem photographs a lot of myths have risen about the subject. The biggest myth was the popular standing pose post-mortem photograph. As seen in the photograph above, this man was used as an example of the standing post-mortem photographs, when in fact he was alive while this was taken. One of the reasons why people believed this was a standing post-mortem was due to the posing stand behind the figure holding him up. These stands were designed to help support one’s head or pose while having to stand perfectly still for a long period of time. These stands were not designed to have been able to support the weight of a dead body and pose it in similar fashion like figure 5. The theory on why this myth is so widespread is no other than value. A post-mortem photograph is worth more than a living Victorian photograph due to the morbid fascination people have on the topic.
Though the Victorian’s themselves were also captivated on the subject of the dead. With the increase in law enforcement and the introduction to detectives. There was an influx of those who were engrossed in the latest murders reported in the newspaper. The first detective murder mystery story, the murders in rue morgue, which was first published in April of 1841 by Edgar Allan Poe. His story, was believed to be inspired by the Mémoires of François-Eugène Vidocq who founded the first detective bureau in 1817. More and more stories and novels were published on the subject. Another aspect of the dead that captivated the Victorians was the supernatural. People had falling for the numerous séances who claimed to be able to talk to the dead. In truth they were merely entertainers. Captivating people with their clever poster designs and illustrations that showcase these supernatural events. (See figure 6) When in reality it was simply a magic trick. The famous writer of the time, Charles Dickens, had a fixation on the idea of ghosts, even though he believed in the scientific theory “that paranormal phenomenon had a physiological basis.” That never stopped him in joining the first paranormal research organization, London Ghost club which formed in 1862. He attended many séances in his time, not because he believed but for none other than entertainment. He saw how his fellow Victorians were enthralled by these ghost left113982500stories and sightings and began to write around 2 dozen ghost stories.
Many of the events that transpired in the Victorian era continue to affect our modern society. The unregulated products that were designed without a worry of the effects that it might have on its consumers, were only brought to light after the death of many. Due to this, regulations were brought in, protecting the customer from bad design. They were also responsible for many of our traditions. Funerals are a big part of our life and many of the traditions of the Victorian funeral are still in use today. The Victorians were also the ones who created the entertainment side of death, from detective stories solving a gruesome murder to the séances who made a business out of talking to the dead. The Victorian era has an abundance of history that is still being discovered to this day. Though one thing is for sure, the Victorians will always be known as an era that was surrounded by, and who obsessed with the dead.


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Victorians and Death: A Period of Morbid Curiosity. (2021, Oct 31). Retrieved from

Victorians and Death: A Period of Morbid Curiosity
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