Prostitutes and progress: the Victorians

The Victorian era is a continuing source of fascination for writers and artists alike whether it be a steampunk science fiction angle, high class manners and repressed pennyroyal-pillaffections or the out and out seediness lurking underneath. Why don’t we have a look at the various elements that draw us to them?

1. Repression. Certain things could not be discussed, even going to the toilet (what did women do around town? I’ve read a few articles which suggest they ducked down an alley but I don’t know how reliable that is). Unlike today where you can call a friend to go down the clinic and collect the morning after pill, such things back then were treated with the utmost discretion.

However there is always a way round things as this genuine advert from the era on victorianlondon.org suggests (Pennyroyal has abortive qualities). Have a look at the others; hair removal was a concern back then too.

Women’s bodies were a thing to be feared as their own wombs could cause hysteria. This led to some … interesting inventions, advertised with the usual subtlety. Or if you prefer a more direct approach have a look at this!

The invention of the camera led to uses other than miserable family photos. If you knew where to go (ie. Holywell street in London) you could find images of those accodomating ladies of the night and maybe one or two of those well-known filthy types, actresses.

2. Bizarre cures. With marijuana, cocaine and opium (or Laudenum) all legal in the laudanum-side-apharmacies it’s a wonder anyone got anything done. Laudanum was also known as ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ and certainly kept a few babies quiet.

As well as this there were a number of ‘quack medicine’ products ie. stuff that didn’t work, flooding the market, including the relatively new and exciting idea that ‘electricity was life’.

Another intriguing cure idea was mesmerism.

3. Science vs superstition. It’s interesting that, in a time of great scientific ectoplasmprogress, much of the average public were turning to Spiritualism (and trickery). Gothic fiction became increasingly popular (as well as penny dreadfuls for the lower classes) and seances became the cool new thing to do, leading to some spooky photos if nothing else, as well as these posters.

4. Sideshows. Though these still occur in some parts of the world it’s difficult for us to comprehend that not only were people displayed in such a way, but they were exhalted as celebrities. After visiting perhaps a menagerie or pleasure garden, people would go along to a show. Joseph Merrick was possibly the One Direction of his day. OK, nobody deserves that, but you see what I’m saying. The posters are a colourful testament to a very peculiar point in history.

Well, there we have it, the weird and wonderful world of the Victorians. There’s so much more to say about them but it’s a start, and certainly their legacy will amuse and confuse us for decades to come. Visit blog ‘Diary of a Victorian Surgeon‘ for a glimpse into the daily life of a man who must have seen it all. Byee!

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4 thoughts on “Prostitutes and progress: the Victorians

  1. Hi Madeleine, thanks for linking to my post! Concerning women around town ducking down in alleys, I would say that’s not at all plausible. At the time, cities were very busy and crowded and lots of poor children would roam the streets. Also these women of course wore underwear and petticoats or hoop skirts, and a pretty restrictive corset, so the chance of doing this unnoticed by passers-by would be very slim. I think the truth is, ladies went to do their errant and returned home immediately. On journeys, carts would stop for lunch and tea or supper and they could use bathrooms then. I think there was a lot of discomfort in the 19th century.

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